While four of the league’s best teams remain alive (technically) for the 2018 championship, it’s currently pre-draft season for most NBA franchises.
Prospects and evaluations will dominate conversations in the coming days at the NBA Draft Combine, in Chicago, as executives, coaches and scouts scrutinize the viability of the 69 draft hopefuls in attendance. As everyone involved with the combine attempts to forecast the careers of the candidates on display, player comparisons almost become unavoidable.
From his days as a five-star prospect in Jackson, Miss., to the past three years as an aspiring NBA player at Mississippi State and the University of Kansas, Malik Newman has heard his name tied with various supposedly similar professional guards who came before him.
In the midst of his stunning NCAA Tournament run with the Jayhawks — 21. 6 points per game, 47.1% shooting, 15-for-34 on 3-pointers, 27-for-30 on free throws — Newman was presented with a player comparison, courtesy of a former KU guard. While watching Newman go against Clemson in the Sweet 16, former Bill Self pupil Russell Robinson tweeted out that Newman’s game reminded him of 13-year NBA veteran Lou Williams.
Like Newman, Williams was a McDonald’s All-American in high school. Since bypassing college for the NBA in 2005, the 6-foot-1 guard has scored 11,807 career points, picking up the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2015. Williams’ most recent season, his 13th, was his best, as he averaged 22.6 points and 5.3 assists — both career highs — garnering all-star consideration while primarily coming off the bench for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Listed at 6-3 and more of a scorer than distributor at heart, did Newman like being connected him Williams?
“Yeah. I love Lou Will’s game,” Newman replied in late March. “I feel like he’s an underrated scorer in the league. That’s what he’s known for is getting buckets. So, I mean, I’ll definitely take that.”
Oddly enough, Newman said two comparisons he often had received were to Williams and another former Sixth Man of the Year (2005), 6-3 guard Ben Gordon, the third overall pick by Chicago in 2004.
“So I’ll definitely take both of those,” Newman added.
He won’t be a lottery pick like Gordon was coming out of UConn. But if Newman wants to follow someone’s career trajectory to NBA success, Williams would serve as an ideal role model. In 2005, Philadelphia selected Williams in the middle of the second round (No. 45 overall). Entering this week’s combine, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony projects Newman as a mid-second round pick (No. 44 overall).
Some players go into this pre-draft process with unrealistic expectations for themselves. In fact, it’s possible for some to entertain impractical ideas after hearing from people employed in the NBA. This past March, one league executive told TNT’s David Aldridge that Newman reminded him of Ray Allen “in size, personality and shooting ability,” characterizing the possibly overlooked Newman as a “value pick.” Allen is a 10-time all-star and hall of famer.
It’s to Newman’s credit that someone would even conjure up such a career track for him. It’s also encouraging that he isn’t headed to the combine thinking he’s about to become an all-time great.
Newman said he doesn’t even have a specific NBA player he tries to model his game after. His two favorites are Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard. But he’s not claiming to be either of those all-stars. He’s not even hyping himself as the next Lou Williams or Ben Gordon — though he’d leave the league fulfilled if able to mirror either of their careers.
Grounded while confident is an ideal approach for a prospect entering the pre-draft process, and it seems Newman is willing to follow that strategy, even as more player comparisons are likely to be thrown his way in the weeks leading up to the June 21 draft.