When Malik Newman considered playing basketball at Kansas — the first time and second time — he heard from people telling him it wouldn’t be the right choice.
Some said KU ran a “system” offense that didn’t allow freedom. Or that big men were featured more than guards.
“Other programs, they’re going to throw their dirt on whoever is not with them,” Newman said with a smile. “You know how that goes.”
Perception can often sway decisions, though. In the end, after announcing he was transferring from Mississippi State, Newman trusted his instincts when it came to KU coach Bill Self.
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“He just sold me on the program, the way that he plays guards, the way he was going to coach me, the vision that he had for me,” Newman said. “I trusted in him. I believe him.”
And he might just be the start of a new recruiting wave for the program.
After years of fighting negative stereotypes, KU appears to be quickly changing its perception when it comes to landing top-level guards.
One reason for that: The Frank Mason effect.
“Kids who are 16, 17, 18 years old getting recruited, they — for the most part — don’t know anything about a guy who played when they were 12 years old or when they were 8 years old. It’s just irrelevant to them,” said Eric Bossi, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “But for them to be able to go, ‘Hey look, this guy was the national player of the year last year,’ I think it does make a difference.”
Before last season, when Mason averaged 21 points and 5 assists, one could understand why the program’s reputation might have centered elsewhere. For years, Self seemed to churn out successful teams with post players like Marcus Morris, Thomas Robinson and Perry Ellis developing into stars.
“That’s definitely been the look on Kansas, that it’s been a big-man school,” said Oklahoma guard Trae Young, a top-20 guard who had KU as a finalist. “But I think it’s just … Coach Self’s just a really good coach. Just depending on who he has (determines) how he’s going to play that year.”
KU also has been among the top schools when it comes to landing wings — a list that has included Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre and Josh Jackson.
Elite guards, though, haven’t always seen KU as a primary destination, though that seems to be changing quickly following the Jayhawks’ winning formula last season.
Self, after assessing his team’s strengths over the first few months, quickly adapted to a new four-guard offense that featured perimeter movement and straight-line drives. The adjustment helped showcase not only Mason, but also the abilities of teammate Devonté Graham — a preseason All-American this year.
“I feel like for any team in the country, our guards have got a lot more freedom than other guards do,” Graham said. “In the course of a game, I’m not sure how many ball screens I come off … every play, I’m coming off a ball screen. You get a chance to make a play almost every possession.”
Self has focused on that type of independence when trying to win over new perimeter recruits.
With Newman, he pulled up film in his office of Mason and former guards Sherron Collins and Mario Chalmers, highlighting how they were able to succeed during their time in Lawrence.
Young had a similar experience, as Self prepared the most clips of Chalmers — someone with a similar skill-set to Young’s.
“(Guards) definitely have freedom at Kansas. You always could tell,” Young said. “They had Frank last year. I watched them, when they played Mizzou the other day, Devonté did really well too. He definitely lets his guards go.”
The recent changes could make KU an easier sell moving forward.
Bossi believes one challenge Self has faced — fair or unfair — is that at one point he became labeled as a “high-low” coach. The implication surrounding that was clear: Big men were going to be the ones featured most.
“Certainly, high-low was a big part of his earlier offense, and he’ll still use it some today, but that hasn’t ever been all he was, I don’t think,” Bossi said. “But it’s just taken a while for people to realize there’s a lot more to what they do.”
Other recruiting stereotypes Bossi has heard secondhand: KU plays slow and Self hesitates to play freshmen. He doesn’t believe either of those to be true.
“If you look at the career, I think it’s completely the opposite,” Bossi said. “That guy’s going to play whoever it takes for him to win.”
For his part, Newman says his faith in Self has already been rewarded. He first realized it during a stint of exhibition games this summer in Italy.
“He let me just go out, play, have fun and just coached me,” Newman said. “As a player, that’s all you can really ask for.”
Others seem to be realizing the same opportunity. KU already has locked up Devon Dotson — a point guard ranked 17th in the 2018 class — and is considered one of the favorites for 6-foot-5 shooting guard Quentin Grimes (11th).
“Certainly, Frank having the type of career he did,” Bossi said, “doesn’t hurt when it comes to recruiting.”