LAWRENCE — Are Kansas basketball fans finally seeing the real Malik Newman?
The sophomore guard isn’t ready to say that yet himself, but he did make one declaration Thursday.
“I can say it’s a better Malik Newman than you guys have been seeing,” Newman said. “I mean, it was about getting my confidence back and just going out, playing and trying to make winning plays.”
True form or not, Newman has of late shown the skill-set that made him a five-star recruit and Rivals’ eighth-ranked player nationally in the Class of 2015. It’s a roll the Jackson, Miss., native will look to continue when the No. 5-ranked Jayhawks (16-4) host Texas A&M (13-7) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
It at times seemed doubtful Newman would ever reach his ceiling at KU.
He laid an egg in KU’s third conference contest, a victory at TCU in which Newman scored just one point on 0-for-2 shooting and committed four fouls in 15 minutes. That rock-bottom effort followed two earlier instances where true freshman Marcus Garrett supplanted Newman in the starting lineup — Nov. 10 against Tennessee State and Dec. 29 at Texas.
After a rocky freshman campaign with Mississippi State before his transfer to Lawrence, one could imagine frustration setting in for the former McDonald’s All-American. Newman, though, tried to keep his slump in perspective.
“It’s basketball,” Newman said. “It’s going to be a lot of ups and downs. There’s times where you’re going to be all the way up and times where you’re going to struggle, so I just try not to get down on myself. I knew that it was fixable.
“It wasn’t like it was the end of the world or anything like that. I just wanted to come out and just bring my game each and every night.”
That process began in the Jayhawks’ first game after the win against the Horned Frogs, a five-point home victory over Iowa State in which Newman scored a career-high 27 points. While the volume it took to get there irked the guard — he went 10 for 21 from the floor and 5 for 13 from 3-point range — it was good enough to earn Newman the Big 12 newcomer of the week award.
Newman has become a bit of a closer since that contest.
His pair of free-throw makes with 15 seconds left broke a tie and gave the Jayhawks a home victory over Kansas State in their next contest. He's also coming off of back-to-back 20-point efforts against Baylor and at Oklahoma, scoring 12 of the Jayhawks’ final 14 points in the comeback victory over the Bears to finish with 24 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
Finding his confidence, Newman said, was a process that began with a look in the mirror.
“It just took time,” he said. “I do think a lot of good was done in practice, just getting extra reps in, doing things I knew I was capable of doing and seeing myself doing it and realizing, ‘Man, this is what I should be doing, what I’m supposed to be doing,’ and just carrying it over to the game.”
Coach Bill Self and Newman’s teammates took a mostly hands-off approach in letting the guard fight through the funk himself, another key in helping him rediscover his aggressiveness. Self has long said Newman is the best player on the team at finding his own shot, and that's shown of late in the latter's ability to finish at the rim.
“I think that was one of the most important things when I was going through my little phase,” said Newman, who is averaging 11.8 points on 44.9 percent shooting this season. “They didn’t really pressure me to hurry up and find myself or anything like that. They worked with me each and every day and it was just being patient. They kept confidence in me.”
One area the former top recruit has almost always contributed this season has been rebounding, a bit of a surprise from the 6-foot-3 Newman. The two-guard is averaging 4.8 boards and has 30 in the Jayhawks’ last five contests, more than doing his part to augment arguably the team’s biggest weakness through 20 games.
“Not being able to go to the offensive rebound, just being able to defensive rebound, I kind of have surprised myself,” Newman said. “With guys like Udoka (Azubuike), athletic guys like Lagerald (Vick) and Svi (Mykhailiuk), and then you’ve got people like me and Devonte’ (Graham), the smallest people on the court, going in and getting rebounds. It did kind of surprise me how good I’ve rebounded this year.”
Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, Newman’s ascent has coincided with another player’s tailspin.
Vick has been held to a single-digit point total in six of the team’s last seven contests, the lone outlier a 10-point effort against K-State. He's averaging 6.6 points on 36.5 percent shooting and 4.1 rebounds over that stretch.
Working off his own experience, Newman is optimistic about Vick's immediate future.
“Lagerald’s a great player. I think it would be the same thing for him,” Newman said. “If he is going through it I think he’d be able to change it soon. Maybe it’s just that one day in practice or one half maybe with Lagerald.
“Right now he is kind of struggling, but I’m pretty sure he’ll be able to turn it around soon.”
TEXAS A&M AT NO. 5 KANSAS
Tipoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence
Line: KU by 7 1/2
TV/Radio: ESPN/KWIC-FM (99.3)
Next: at Kansas State, 8 p.m. Monday, Bramlage Coliseum, Manhattan
TEXAS A&M (13-7, 2-6 SEC)
P Player... Ht.... Cl.... Pts.... Reb.
C Tyler Davis... 6-10... Jr.... 14.3... 8.8
F Robert Williams... 6-10... So.... 10.4... 9.9
F D.J. Hogg... 6-9... Jr.... 12.3... 6.1
G Admon Gilder... 6-4... Jr.... 11.7... 4.3
G Duane Wilson... 6-3... Sr.... 10.1... 4.2*
NO. 5 KANSAS (16-4, 6-2 Big 12)
P Player... Ht.... Cl.... Pts.... Reb.
C Udoka Azubuike... 7-0... So.... 14.2... 7.7
G Lagerald Vick... 6-5... Jr.... 13.6... 5.6
G Svi Mykhailiuk... 6-8... Sr.... 16.5... 3.9
G Malik Newman... 6-3... So.... 11.8... 4.8
G Devonte’ Graham... 6-2... Sr.... 17.8... 7.4*
* — Assists