The play was meant for Malik Newman. Let’s start with that.
Kansas was already well on its way to a 96-58 victory over Toledo — putting up at least 55 first-half points for a fourth straight game — when it held for the final shot before the break.
The call was meant to get Newman a shot in the corner. That didn’t happen.
And KU ended up with three points anyway.
The sequence was one of many that has defined this particular KU team: full of selflessness and short on ego. Devonté Graham tried to snap a pass to Newman, but it was deflected.
No problem. Newman didn’t force an attempt, pump-faking to get his defender in the air. He drove baseline, then noticed Lagerald Vick’s man came into the lane to help.
Newman passed to Vick, who swung it to Svi Mykhailiuk on the wing.
“Svi made an incredible shot,” Newman said.
One that likely wouldn’t have opened up on many other teams.
It’s easy to go big picture and be in awe of KU’s offense. The Jayhawks made 80 percent of their unblocked shots in the first half and also were 9-for-11 from three-point range. The Jayhawks’ 59 first-half points were so impressive that KU coach Bill Self admitted on postgame radio that he was “shocked” to see that high of a score.
Yet, there’s a lot that has to go right on an individual level to make that sort of offense possible.
Like, for instance, a once-top-10 player in Newman showing quick maturity just six games into his KU career.
Think about this season from his perspective. He transferred to KU hoping to show NBA scouts a more versatile skill set than he did in one year at Mississippi State. Then, after sitting out a transfer year, he understood the high expectations from Self when the coach said he’d “be disappointed if (Newman’s) not an all-league player next year” after the team’s postseason banquet in April.
Newman is a scorer. He’s always been one. His NBADraft.net profile starts with the phrase “scoring guard with great speed and scoring instincts.” Heck, he scored 25 points in 16 minutes during an exhibition game over the summer, leading an Italian PA announcer to scream, “It’s crazy!” into the microphone during a timeout.
You can see how it’d be easy for him to get wrapped up in points. For most of his life, that’s been his basketball identity.
Instead, Newman has bought into KU’s team-first play, with another example coming late in the first half.
Self ran a stagger screen to try to get Newman open for a three on the perimeter. And for a brief moment, he appeared to have an opportunity to put up a mostly open shot on the wing.
Instead, Newman saw that he’d drawn two defenders. He took one dribble, then found Mykhailiuk in the corner for a better shot.
“Like Coach always says, ‘The guy that’s rolling is the open guy,’ ” Newman said.
Newman, by the way, doesn’t lead KU in scoring. He’s not second or even third.
Through six games, he’s actually fifth, with his 13.5-point average ranking behind Mykhailiuk, Udoka Azubuike, Vick and Graham.
He doesn’t seem to mind.
“If I’m jealous of Devonté, Devonté’s jealous of Lagerald, we can’t come together as a unit and have fun,” Newman said. “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about: having fun and competing.”
KU has had plenty of good times though a 6-0 start with an offense that appears to have a higher ceiling than any other Self squad.
That doesn’t happen without players like Newman — the embodiment of a player focused more on teammates than himself.