Malik Newman’s NBA Draft decision more difficult after tough season

As a top-five recruit in the 2015-2016 freshman class, Mississippi State guard Malik Newman was supposed to come in and take college basketball by storm with his ability to score the basketball. Unfortunately, things have not gone as planned and they’re getting worse by the day.

During his press conference Monday, Bulldogs’ coach Ben Howland said Newman’s status going forward is still up in the air due to a back injury suffered during a fall against Vanderbilt.

“It’s still a question as to whether or not he’ll be able to play in (the Texas A&M) game,” Howland said. “The back is locked up good. He got an MRI and he’s seeing a doctor today in Columbus and I’ll have more information later today.”

Given this information, that back injuries tend not to heal overnight, and that the Bulldogs’ season is coming to an end relatively soon, this seems like as good a time as any to discuss what exactly happened to Newman’s freshman season.

Looking on the surface, it wouldn’t necessarily be readily apparent that Newman’s season has gone by the wayside. Thus far, he’s averaging 12.3 points, three rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. Nothing earth-shattering there, but not necessarily awful. The problem is when you get into his levels of efficiency and overall development. Newman hasn’t really made strides as a playmaker this season — his 13.2 assist rate vs. 13.3 turnover rate isn’t exactly spectacular — and his defense has been about what you’d expect from a freshman adjusting to a tough scheme under Howland.

So given that, let’s talk about his bread and butter as a prospect: his scoring ability. That’s going to be where Newman makes his money as a pro, as a combo guard who can fill the scoreboard with points. His shooting slash line of 38.8/39.4/69.7 belies a lot of the problems he’s had so far — and actually speaks to some of the concerns NBA scouts had about him coming into his collegiate career.

In high school, Newman was known as a shot-maker who could create and make difficult shots. During his freshman year though, it’s been just about the opposite. Thus far, the best part of the 6-foot-4 guard’s game has been his ability to make catch-and-shoot jumpers. He’s taken 82 jumpers off of the catch, and made them at a clip of 1.36 points-per-shot. That’s good enough for the 94th percentile in college basketball, according to Synergy Sports. It speaks to ability he has to shoot, which is something that’s never really been questioned in regard to him.

Injuries have hindered Malik Newman this season. (USATSI)
Injuries have hindered Malik Newman this season. (USATSI)

The bigger problem has been his ability to create clean looks, something he was able to do in high school due to strong lateral quickness and terrific ball-handling ability, but hasn’t been able to do thus far in college. Newman’s numbers attempting to score off the dribble this season have not been great. He’s taken 49 jumpers off the bounce, only making them at a .63 points-per-shot clip. That’s in the 30th percentile nationally according to Synergy Sports. His problems are shown in his percentages inside the arc, a place Newman excelled in high school. From the mid-range — an area I’ll define as 10-to-19 feet from the basket — Newman is only making 29 percent of his shots according to ShotAnalytics.com. Near the basket, his numbers are just as bad, making 37.5 percent of his looks in halfcourt sets and only 43 percent of his shots overall according to Synergy. The problems there are evident statistically and with the eye test, and it’s difficult to judge how much scouts should shrug them off versus how many red flags they raise. There are three explanations for Newman’s struggles, two of which you can point to as excuses on the positive side for Newman’s stock and one of which points more negatively toward him. The first is simply that Newman has been injured a lot this season. Howland alluded to that in his press conference Monday, noting all of the little nicks he’s had to go through this season.

“Think about all the different little things he’s gone through, from the turf toe to the cramping to now the back,” Howland said. “Sure it’s frustrating. It’s part of it you know how you deal with that adversity is everything.”

Those are certainly mitigating factors for Newman physically, and they’re particularly problematic for a player who doesn’t exactly have elite size, length or elevation to begin with. That’s the second explanation for why Newman is struggling, simply that he may have bigger problems to work with on his game.

Malik Newman has had some struggles in adapting to the college game. (USATSI)
Malik Newman has had some struggles in adapting to the collegiate level. (USATSI)

At 6-4 with a 6-5 wingspan, Newman isn’t exactly perfect from a frame point of view. In high school, he was simply just more skilled than everyone and got by with it. Now though, it seems like that lack of length is raising issues once Newman gets into the lane, making it easier to close down on the combo guard and making it more difficult for him to get the necessary separation to score. It’s also worth noting that while Newman does have strong lateral quickness, he’s never necessarily been the most explosive vertical player. That plus the lack of length points to why his numbers near the rim are as bad as they are, and could point to genuine struggles for him in the future.

However, one way to help Newman get separation against other players is with the ball-screen, and that’s not something Mississippi State has done much of this season. So far this season, Mississippi State as a team is 295th nationally in the percent of time they make plays in the pick-and-roll according to Synergy. Nearly 1,300 players around the country have made more plays in the pick-and-roll than Newman has this season with either a shot, pass or turnover.

That speaks to a bit of a problematic fit in the Bulldogs’ offense, which is something borne out not only by the numbers but simply in the way that the offense can get bogged down from time to time. Mississippi State assists on fewer of its made field goals than all but one other SEC team, which points to an offense that can often get bogged down with ball-stopping — something Newman certainly contributes to. Since 2002, Howland has never had a team finish outside of the mid-point nationally in assist percentage, and his team’s average percentile finish has been in the 74th percentile nationally. This season, Mississippi State is on pace to finish in the 27th percentile nationally.

Realistically, this just hasn’t been a great fit from the start for Newman in terms of play style. This isn’t to cast stones at one side or the other, it just is what it is. And the combination of the three factors I raised above is going to make for an awfully difficult evaluation for NBA scouts and executives. Newman will almost assuredly at least declare for the NBA draft this offseason given the new rule that will allow players to return to college 10 days after the combine if they do not like their stock. That means Newman will get a chance to work out in front of NBA people for at least a little while, who will then have to determine if it’s worth spending a pick on him.

Right now, I do have Newman as a top-50 prospect and I believe there is a good chance he would be selected in the draft despite his limitations. Plus, there’s also an argument that going undrafted could benefit him given the fact that he’d assuredly — barring injury — get some sort of contract, likely with a larger guarantee than what would be provided for him in the D-League if a team simply wanted to keep his draft rights active (ex. Andrew Harrison last season). Still though, players under Howland tend to make a rather large leap from their freshman to sophomore seasons, so it could behoove Newman to ride it out despite a tenuous fit and see if he can rebuild his stock.

Both decisions are risky in their own right. If he doesn’t rebuild his stock, he’d be in an even worse position next offseason, and he’d be passing up a fair amount of money. Newman has one of the toughest choices to make regarding his draft stock, and I certainly don’t envy him in what has been a tough season to this point.

Malik Newman's length and play against length has been a question this season. (USATSI)
Malik Newman’s length and play against length has been a question this season. (USATSI)

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