Eager to share new experiences and perhaps ease a bout of homesickness, Mississippi native Malik Newman maintained close contact with family members during his redshirt season with the Kansas basketball team.
“He called me every day. I’m not exaggerating — every single day,” Newman’s dad, former Mississippi State forward Horatio Webster, told The Star in a recent interview.
“He called me after practice, called me when he was eating, when he hit the gym late at night, 11, 12, 1 o’clock. He let me know he was having a blast.”
As a player, Webster averaged 17.0 points and 5.2 rebounds in 1997-98, earning first-team all-league honors his senior year at Mississippi State. As a dad, he was happy to lend an ear to his son, who had only been away from his Jackson, Miss., home for short bursts of time before arriving at KU.
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“I used to look at my wife, ‘Ah here goes Malik,’” Webster said with a hearty laugh, referring to the times his phone rang. “I think he needed somebody to talk to, especially when the guys were on the road.
“He handled it as well as anybody who had a ball in his hands since he was 4, 5 years old, then had it taken away. You can imagine how that was.”
Newman, a 6-foot-3 sophomore combo guard, transferred to KU after an injury-plagued freshman season at Mississippi State in 2015-16. He practiced last season with the Jayhawks but could not play in games until this fall in accordance with NCAA transfer rules.
“When the season started, he started counting down the days (until he could play),” Webster said of a recurring theme of the phone calls with his son. “I was like, ‘Lord, this is going to be a long year.’”
The calls were mostly positive, though, Webster recalled.
“He loves Coach Howard,” Webster said of assistant coach Jerrance Howard, a man Newman refers to as his “uncle.”
“He loves everything at KU — the staff, the media, the fans,” Webster added. “He even says he loves his teachers. I said, ‘I’ve got to do a fact check whether that’s true or not.’ He’s not so pleased he can’t find any great seafood. Other than that, he loves it there.”
But Newman said the year-long wait to return to playing in real games, against actual opponents called by real refs, was tough to handle.
That in part explained all the cell phone calls to his dad — conversations Malik refers to as “normal Horatio/Malik talks.”
“It was a tough decision (to transfer) knowing you have that whole year,” Newman said.
He declared for the 2016 NBA Draft after a freshman season in which he averaged 11.3 points a game on 39 percent shooting. But he didn’t sign with an agent and ultimately pulled his name out of the draft, announced plans to transfer and chose KU over Oregon, Western Kentucky and North Carolina State.
“I did come to peace with it once I did it. I looked at it not sitting out a year but as a year to get better, my overall game to get better,” Newman said.
He said his ball handling, passing and defense all have improved by practicing against the likes of Frank Mason, Josh Jackson, Devonté Graham, Lagerald Vick, Svi Mykhailiuk and others. But that doesn’t mean it was easy improving in those areas while not reaping the rewards of playing under the bright lights.
“The wait … it feels like one of the longest things I’ve ever had to do,” Newman said. “Considering it was only a year … it felt way longer than a year. Game day was always the toughest.”
KU coach Bill Self said Newman did indeed take practice seriously.
“He went through last year attacking every day to try to get better,” Self said. “… I think it was humbling too for him. I think from what people have told me he’s really a much happier-go-lucky kid than he was when he first got here.”
Newman said though he felt support from home, it was great to have relocated to Big 12 country.
“I think that’s helped me grow up a whole lot,” Newman said. “I was kind of happy I was away from home honestly. It gave me a chance to refocus, regroup myself. It was a good thing.
“My mindset has not changed. It’s a confidence thing. I feel I’m the same player I was out of high school. I just think I’m better, wiser, older.”
The 20-year old Newman, who averaged 29.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists his senior year at Jackson’s Callaway High and was chosen as a McDonald’s All-American, will forever be remembered in Mississippi. He was Rivals.com’s No. 8-rated player in the Class of 2015 and was the only player to win four large-class Mississippi state titles.
Expectations remain high at KU for Newman, who was considered a likely one-and-done player at Mississippi State. He recently was voted Big 12 preseason newcomer of the year by the league’s coaches.
“I mean it’s pressure for me, at the same time it’s kind of what you signed up for,” Newman said. “It’s something you’ve been doing your whole life.”
There’s one man particularly interested to watch Newman in games. He’s fifth-year KU assistant Howard, who made numerous trips to Mississippi in hot pursuit of Newman, ultimately losing out to Mississippi State after the Bulldogs hired Ben Howland as coach.
“Fourteen times,” Howard said, recalling his trips to Mississippi. “You are allowed seven (in-person evaluations of prospects) per year. All seven were to Mississippi during the school year — both years (junior, senior). We never missed a game of his in the summertime.”
Howard tried not to take it personally when Newman chose Mississippi State in the spring of 2015.
“The kid liked Kansas the first time. You can’t knock a kid for staying home and going to his dad’s alma mater,” Howard said. “There were no hard feelings. We kept a good relationship and wished him the best, sent our best wishes.
“Of course we were happy when he made the decision to choose Kansas the second time.”
Howard says Newman has a gift of scoring, evidenced by his 19 points in 22 minutes in KU’s 100-54 exhibition victory over Pittsburg State on Oct. 31 at Allen Fieldhouse and 17 points in 28 minutes in the Jayhawks’ 93-87 charity exhibition win over Missouri on Oct. 22 at the Sprint Center.
“He is by far the best offensive player I’ve been part of recruiting and coaching. He has a natural niche in scoring the ball. He can shoot, get it off the dribble,” Howard said. “As far as go get a basket and being a pure scorer, he’s done it his whole life.
“A lot of it is in his blood. His dad was a big-time scorer. His dad had him in the gym at a young age, developed him into a real good player.”
Newman noted the ultimate goal in heading to KU is “to win the whole thing. They’ve been to the Elite Eight the last two years. Kicking down the door would give us that extra step to bring it home. It’s important for us to have the goal to get there (Final Four) and win it. I feel like it’s how we’ll approach every practice, like it’s a Final Four practice.”
Perhaps he’ll count down the days to a Big 12 title or the days to the 2018 Final Four during FaceTime chats with his dad.
Yes, the calls have continued from Newman in Lawrence to dad in Jackson, Miss.
“Every other day,” Horatio Webster said. “Not every day now, but every other day.”