Final Four 2018: Malik Newman's bold decision to transfer to Kansas having biggest possible payoff

It says something about Malik Newman that he chose to play at Kansas over the easy escape of the NBA Draft. It has worked wonderfully for him during the Jayhawks' Final Four run.

The elimination of Duke from the 2018 NCAA Tournament — which followed the elimination of Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas and Michigan State — all but assured no one-and-done freshman will be competing in the Final Four.

Oh, wait, there's one: Kansas sophomore Malik Newman.

MORE: KU overcomes Duke, past history to reach Final Four

Technically, you can’t be a one-and-done if you’re a sophomore, especially not a redshirt-sophomore, which Newman is. He spent a year in residence at KU after transferring from Mississippi State, where he originally committed to play coming out of Callaway High School in Jackson, Miss. It was widely assumed Newman, the star of USA Basketball’s U-17 world champions, a McDonald’s All-American and easily the top guard of the 2015 recruiting class, would torch Southeastern Conference defenses and jet to the 2016 NBA Draft.

Plans change, though. Sometimes, they're changed for you. Mississippi State didn't work for him; coach Ben Howland was new to the Bulldogs, and Newman was new to the college game. He always had been an uncommon player with an unusual skill set, and there wasn’t enough time for it all to work out ideally in Starkville.

And so Newman chose a different course. It says something about him that he didn't simply place blame for his struggles elsewhere and jump to the draft, gambling that it would all work out in the pros. He thought about it. He wouldn’t have been the first to take the easy escape. It says more that, when so many expected he would be a rookie in the NBA, he was going through coach Bill Self’s demanding Kansas practices fully aware he would not be allowed to play in a game.

“It wasn’t hard. At the end of the day, I had to make a man’s decision,” Newman told Sporting News. “I had to do what was best for me and best for my career. So it wasn’t a hard decision. The only hard part about it was game day. Other than that, I had fun in practice, had fun with the guys off the court. The only challenging part about that was not being able to lace up on game day.”

Newman is a 6-3 guard who’d played his entire career as a nominal point guard. Meaning, he was a guard and he’d go get points. He was so obviously the best scorer on every one of his teams — even that USA team with Jayson Tatum (one-and-done), Diamond Stone (one-and-done) and Josh Jackson (one-and-done) — that it always made sense for him to use a screen to get himself free from defenders and take whatever shot was available.

He had 21 assists in seven games at the 2014 FIBA U-17 World Championships, but scored 14.9 points a game and earned tournament MVP. It didn’t work as well at Mississippi State, where he shot 39.1 percent and averaged 11.3 points in 29 games. He understood that, in choosing Kansas, there was a good chance he’d play his first season with Devonte’ Graham, who’d waited his entire career to become Kansas' full-time point guard.

That meant Newman would have to grow comfortable with playing off the ball. There would be fewer opportunities for him to create his own shot.

As it turned out, Self determined his team couldn’t function properly without Graham on the floor and began playing him 40 minutes at every opportunity. So there were even fewer chances than expected for Newman to play on the ball. He had to grow entirely comfortable with the life of a shooting guard: catch-and-shoots, scoring off curls and quick drives after fielding passes, rather than reading the defense and diagnosing a weakness.

MORE: Devonte' Graham: The KU All-American who almost never was

The Kansas coaches had to encourage Newman to run to the corners in transition. He was used to stopping above the free throw line because he usually had the ball. They put pieces of tape on the floor and told him he had to run past them.

It took a while. The challenge of completely changing one’s approach to the game is underrated — it’s not quite like Roger Federer learning to play tennis left-handed, but that exaggeration can provide an idea of the complexity.

“Kind of midway through Big 12 play I was starting to get comfortable with the system, just being out there,” Newman said. “I was just thinking a lot. That was the main thing. I was just thinking too much. I just stopped thinking and just started playing. It was just a personal reflection, soul searching.”

Well, there was more to it than that. There was some encouragement, shall we say, from his coach.

“There’s no doubt I made my feelings very well known with him, on how I thought about the things he wasn’t doing,” Self said. “It’s amazing to me. When we played Oklahoma State, it was awful. He didn’t do anything to help anybody. And then he gets 20 in the first half the second time we play them. Then all of a sudden, it’s like the lid came off: 'I can do this.' He’s just become more of a complete player. I think so many times people have though he’s a shooter; now he’s showing he can score.

“I don’t know what it was, the light that came on, but let’s keep that thing on.”

Kansas has played seven elimination games in March between the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments, a stretch that has seen Newman average 22.7 points a game. His surge is the No. 1 reason Kansas owns the Big 12 championship and now is headed to San Antonio for the Final Four.

“Malik, the last three weeks, we’ve become a different team,” Self said. “We were a pretty good team that had a chance maybe to be a 1-seed. The last three weeks, he’s taken us from being a pretty good team to a terrific team, at least the way I see it. Now, you’ve got to guard everybody, and he’s become one of our best defenders.”

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One of the impressive aspects of Newman’s transfer is that he has gone more than two years without disparaging anyone or anything at Mississippi State. His father told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in 2016 “the style of play just didn’t fit Malik,” and that there were some trust problems between Malik and Howland. Ask Malik why he left, and he simply declines to speak about it.

Ask about his reason for selecting Kansas the second time around, though, and he'll say, “I just feel like it was the best situation for me to be in.”

It's impossible to argue that now.