Wayne Brent felt compelled to do something.
The former prep coach couldn’t help but reflect back on the time his former player and Mississippi basketball prodigy hit the equivalent of basketball rock bottom. He couldn’t help but remember the look of an unhappy face for a player known for his smile. He couldn’t help but focus on the inconsistencies during the early stages of what was supposed to be a breakout year.
So Brent, now the coach at Jackson State University, picked up the phone last month and called Kansas guard Malik Newman to relay a message, perhaps even fatherly-like advice, Brent had received from an NBA scout with the New Orleans Pelicans.
“I was looking for something to jump-start him,” said Brent, who coached Newman for two years at Callaway High School in Jackson, Mississippi. “The only thing I knew that would strike his interest would be hearing someone say something from the NBA.”
The scout — Brent has heard from several others around the league with similar viewpoints — wanted to see Newman play with a sense of urgency, and more consistency, down the stretch in both the Big 12 Tournament and NCAA Tournament.
“The thing I tried to tell him is you still got two years left, so you don't have to panic, but I did want you to know somebody from the NBA did call to ask about you and to let you know you still got a chance to really be an NBA player,” Brent told CNHI earlier this week.
Brent spoke. Newman just listened, adding in several “Yes, sirs.”
The anecdote is fun and timely. Brent isn’t sure if there is a direct correlation. All he knows is something has the redshirt sophomore balling like the 3,000-plus point scorer he was in high school.
“My confidence is sky high,” Newman said earlier this month. “I'm not really out there thinking anymore, just playing, doing what (Kansas coach Bill Self) asked me to do and just trying to make plays, winning plays for the team to win.”
Most know the story by now. Newman is a major reason why Kansas reached its first Final Four since 2012.
The once-prized recruit is experiencing a late-season renaissance, a complete 180-degree turn from the beginning of his college career, first in a failed year at Mississippi State and then a roller-coaster start at Kansas.
Newman is amid the best streak of his young, yet budding, career during the past seven games — all in the postseason — averaging 22.7 points per game on a sizzling 55 percent from the 3-point line with 5.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals.
“In the last three weeks or a month, it's just incredible how he has performed in all areas,” Self said Monday during a Final Four conference call.
The 6-foot-3 combo guard has morphed from a sidekick to a leading role in a matter of weeks, erasing most of the negative thoughts tied to his name.
Newman was a consensus top 10 recruit coming out of Callaway, and many projected he would spend one year, like most top players, in college and bolt for the NBA.
Of the top nine players ranked by Rivals.com in the 2015 class, only Newman remains in school. Seven of them cashed in early, becoming lottery picks on their way to earning multi-million dollar contracts.
His path would feature a few detours. It all began when he surprised many by signing with Mississippi State over blueblood programs like Kansas.
The dark days
Whether it was nagging injuries or general unhappiness, the marriage with Mississippi State never lasted past the honeymoon stage. Newman initially declared for the 2016 NBA Draft without an agent, instead opting to transfer for a fresh start.
That summer, Brent invited Newman to train at Jackson State. The goal was to extract the player Brent had coached in high school, a relentless All-American with a never-ending work ethic. Brent was blunt with his words, too, telling Newman his defense was a weakness. The ability was there, as Newman showed by locking down Duke’s Grayson Allen last weekend, but Brent felt he needed more consistency.
More than anything, Brent wanted Newman to have fun again.
“The first time I met with him he was just so down,” Brent said. “It was almost like a person that had been beaten down. It was more so from him probably putting pressure on himself and what everyone was saying about him. He just needed a new start.”
Newman’s father, Horatio Webster, told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in 2016 that Newman’s trust issues with Mississippi State coach Ben Howland played a role in the transfer.
Trust equals confidence for Newman, and he’s blossomed of late in addition to what he termed doing some “soul searching.” His teammates keep the positive vibes flowing. His coaches are continually nudging Newman to play with more of a purpose instead of acting as a bystander.
“Malik is a special kid. He's not a disrespectful kid, but he has to know the coach is with him and the coach can give him confidence,” Brent said. “A lot of kids just play and don't care what the coach thinks. I think Malik is one that has to know the coach really, really cares about him.”
Finally living up to the hype
It took him most of 2018 to find the cape he wore in the Elite Eight during a career-high 32-point outing.
Newman scored at least 12 points in his first six games at Kansas. Then he hit a stretch mired in inconsistent play. One night he’d score 13 points, the next game he’d go scoreless. In early January, he followed up a one-point dud against TCU with a 27-point outburst against Iowa State.
Then the Big 12 Tournament came.
Newman popped off for a career-high 30 points in a win over Oklahoma State. He mixed in terrific long-range shooting — 4 of 6 from beyond the arc — with aggressive, downhill attacks. He scored 22 points the next day, drilling five more 3-pointers and adding six rebounds, four assists and three steals.
It all culminated with the win over Duke. Newman swished five 3-pointers, and his defense on Allen in the final seconds helped forced overtime.
“This is why you come to Kansas, to be in games like this, to be in moments like this,” Newman said after the victory.
Truth is, Newman has thrived in big moments his entire basketball career. One of the first things Brent noted is how Newman, to this day, is undefeated in postseason basketball.
He won four 5A state championships at Callaway, helped Kansas to a 3-0 record to win the 2018 Big 12 Tournament title and is 4-0 during the Jayhawks’ NCAA Tournament run.
“I've gotten so many calls from everybody who said, man, I don't think Malik is the player everybody said he was going to be,” Brent said. “I told my sister the other day how it's funny how everybody was down on this kid. Then all of a sudden in three weeks he's playing so well, and I look on Facebook and Twitter and everybody is so high on him now. I'm like, the kid could play basketball all along. It was just him getting his confidence.”