Mississippi State basketball’s 2015-16 season is kind of all about Malik Newman. I mean, it’s about the team, to be certain. It’s about the Mississippi State Bulldogs. But what the team, what Mississippi State, wants to do is centered around Newman, the marquee signee of new head coach Ben Howland’s first class in Starkville this spring.
It’s a natural thing when a star of his caliber arrives to a new team. Those who were already there had and still have their own futures and pasts, but their dreams and visions came alive with the new possibilities now open to them.
If there was any doubt about Newman’s talent, the point guard has erased them since getting on campus and perhaps even exceeded expectations. Howland has readily stated at every given opportunity that he expects Newman to be in the NBA this time next year, and he’s someone who would know having coached a lengthy list of professional stars in his career.
Even something as small as the team’s schedule poster for the year expresses the belief and confidence around the program in Newman. It features six players: the five seniors, plus Newman – all the people in their last year at State.
“He is a one-and-done player,” Howland said. “You never know for certain, but I feel pretty certain that this going to work for Malik, that he’ll be in and out of here in one year.”
The NBA, Newman says, is far from his mind right now though, and of all the expectations thrust upon him, it’s the one he’s least concerned about at the moment. He wants to deliver at MSU. He wants to win games. MSU’s seniors, as Howland has said, have had a rough three years and they’re depending on Newman to help them go out on a high note. MSU’s fans have been through ups and downs the last several years and they, too, are hoping Newman can help Howland lead the program to back to its old highs and even further.
“He’s got a bright future and we want him to have a great year this year for our team and help get this program back on the right track,” Howland said.
Of course, the pressure won’t just come from within. Every game Newman plays, those on the opposing team will be gunning for him. They want a piece of the star, of the highly-touted freshman and of the future NBA point guard. They want to prove they’re just as good or prove he’s just as bad, whichever they can do.
As Howland put it, Newman will have a bullseye on his chest as the best players on every team they face will try to use Newman’s name to make a name for themselves.
“He’s got to be at the top of his game every night we step on the floor, knowing that’s the challenge every time for him to lead our team as our point guard and to also withstand that kind of challenge every night,” Howland said.
It’s the kind of pressure that comes with being one of the country’s best players, and may seem like a lot to handle for a college freshman. But as Howland and MSU’s players will quickly point out, Newman isn’t the typical college freshman. All the expectations and all the attention have done nothing to deter him. If anything, they’ve spurred Newman to work even harder, play even better.
“I don’t look at it as pressure,” Newman said. “I just look at it as something that’s making me better and preparing me for the next level. Everyone coming after me each and every game, it can only make me better and make me play harder.”
It’s a work ethic his teammates have seen and is much of why they’ve embraced him. It would be easy for them to be selfish and keep the freshman star at a distance, but as Howland said himself, they want to win and they know Newman can help them do that.
Certainly, he earned respect in his approach when he got to campus, showing a desire to learn from the veterans on the team. Many of those veterans had known him for years, anyway, as he had been recruited by MSU since ninth grade, long before Howland got to town.
Over the course of the summer, the players regularly got to together on their own to shoot and play ball, affording them all good bonding time with Newman and the rest of the incoming class.
Then, of course, is the talent he brings to the table. Senior guard Craig Sword has been the primary and often only scoring threat in his three years at MSU, constantly battling the attention of entire defenses. When MSU had its first practice of the preseason Monday, Sword was thrilled to see every defensive eye not on him, but on Newman. For the first time in his career, even in practice, he was wide open.
Senior forward Gavin Ware had a similar reaction, seeing how much space he is going to have in the post. Shooters, drivers, passers – everyone’s game will improve and open up purely by Newman being on the court, and that’s not even mentioning the amounts of all three Newman will be contributing himself.
Through that talent, backed up by his work ethic and accompanied by a strong but agreeable personality, Newman has become one of the leaders on the team, despite the fact he’s never played in a game.
“I don’t think it’s something hard,” Newman said of being a leader as a freshman. “I think when you’re doing right, everyone follows you. For me to be doing what I’m doing and the guys follow, it’s just kind of given me that role automatically.”
Already, despite official practices only having just begun, Newman and Sword say they feel like they’ve been playing together for years. The duo expects to provide a formidable backcourt for the Bulldogs as, with all the praise Newman has received, Howland said Sword is MSU’s best at attacking the rim, “no question.”
That’s part of the whole deal. It’s all about Newman, but it’s not just about him. It’s about the talent around him, like Sword and Ware, the talent who’s taken him in, like junior point guard I.J. Ready, and the talent that got to campus with him, like fellow freshman Quindarry Weatherspoon. In just a matter of months, Howland has built something seemingly formidable and ready to attack to the Southeastern Conference.
Newman is the linchpin, and no one is shy about saying it. In fact, the team embraces it.
“They all welcome him with open arms,” Howland said. “They want to win. Our seniors want to have a great senior year. They’ve had a tough three years, so far, and they want to finish their careers here on a high note. Malik’s definitely going to be a key to helping them do that.”
Maybe it’s a lot to expect out of him, but Howland knows as well as any coach in the country what players of Newman’s caliber are capable of. He’s seen under-recruited and highly-recruited alike make it to the NBA, and he’s seen plenty of both who never quite panned out.
With Final Fours, conference titles, first-round draft picks and one-and-dones all to his name, it’s hard not to take Howland at his word when he brags on his latest star.
“The thing that makes Malik so good is his skill level and his intelligence,” Howland said. “He’s really, really bright. Very, very smart player. Very smart kid. Really is beyond his years in terms of his feel for the game and intelligence. Then he’s a very good shooter. Can really stroke the ball and can put it in in a number of ways. He’s unselfish. He’s got great leadership qualities. It’s really, really a pleasure to be coaching him, because he’s special.”
If Newman truly is that special, Howland’s first season at MSU likely will be, too.