By Jimmy Hyams
Kevin Punter was a junior college all-American who averaged 20.3 points per game as a sophomore.
He was a prolific scorer in high school, averaging over 24 points his final two seasons.
So when he was asked to change his shot his senior year of Division I basketball by a coach he’d known for a matter of weeks, Punter wasn’t sure what to think.
But then logic took over.
That coach was Rick Barnes, who had won almost 600 games, taken Texas to a Final Four, produced several lottery picks and tutored Kevin Durant.
That was enough to sway Punter.
“His track record,’’ Punter said of the reason he bought in to Barnes changing his shot. “I used to watch Texas play with Kevin Durant. The lottery and NBA guys he had.
“For me, it wasn’t hard to buy in. When a guy of his stature comes into your program, you know how much he has had success in the past.
“I felt like me and him were a great combination. A guy just full of knowledge and wisdom, he’s been coaching for so long. And me, I just love to be in the gym, I love to work on my craft.’’
But that work didn’t come without frustration.
Punter had an unorthodox jump shot with the ball placed behind his head on jump shots. Many went in, as evidenced by his high school and junior college numbers and his 10.3 points per game average as a Tennessee junior.
In one of their first meetings, Barnes asked Punter if he wanted to be a pro.
“Of course,’’ Punter said. “Then the first thing he did was change my shot.
“Nobody ever told me that before. Imagine you’re an All-American junior college player and you get to Division I and a new coach says, I’m not going to be a pro if I don’t change my shot.
“All these different ideas were going through my mind.’’
But he kept coming back to this: Barnes has a proven track record.
“I took it as a challenge,’’ Punter said while in Italy during an interview on WNML Radio. “I fell in love with how (the new jump shot) looked. It looked so pretty and if felt so effortless.’’
But it wasn’t always successful.
“I went days without making a jump shots,’’ said the native of the Bronx, N.Y. “It was quite difficult.’’
Yet it was smooth, effortless. And, finally, after taking 2,000 shots a day, it started falling – and falling with great consistency.
Suddenly a guy who barely averaged double figures as a junior was scoring at a 22.2-point clip in the SEC. It was the second largest jump from one season to the next in Tennessee men’s basketball history, behind only Terry Crosby.
When Tennessee ascended to the No. 1 spot in the both the AP and coaches’ polls last week, Barnes was asked about the journey from having a rocky start on Rocky Top – the Vols were 31-35 after Barnes’ first two seasons with not so much as an NIT bid – to the top of the college hoops world.
Barnes complimented Punter.
“I’ll always be thankful for and blessed to have coached Kevin Punter,’’ Barnes said. “He did buy in and he was the very first one to buy in.’’
When Barnes suggested Punter needed to change his shot, Barnes recalls Punter saying: “I’ll do whatever I need to do.’’
Barnes: “He literally would go 2,000 shots a day, starting from ground zero. He got frustrated at times. I said, `Hey I told him it wouldn’t be easy.’’’
When Barnes comments were relayed to Punter, who is in Italy playing pro ball, Punter was flattered.
“It’s just an honor,’’ Punter said. “He’s a Hall of Fame coach. For him to have those words to say about me is an honor. I put a lot of work in, so for coach to really take a note of that and understand how hard I worked, that’s nice.’’
Punter said he’s not only more accurate with his Barnes-instructed shot, but he’s got better range. At Tennessee, Punter not only added over 11 points per game, he went from shooting 41.9 percent from the field to 46 percent and from 68.5 percent at the free throw line to 81.7 percent.
Punter also said he thinks his new shot has added 10 points per game to his average. Considering he is averaging 15.4 points in Italy, that’s quite a statement.
Punter said he’s thrilled that the Vols are ranked No. 1.
“Amazing, amazing, amazing,’’ he said. “My senior year, those guys were freshmen. The growth they’ve had makes me happy, makes me proud. Those guys used to get chewed out at practice as freshman. I actually witnessed that.
“Now those guys are leaders of the team and playing well. The work really works. I’m glad those guys bought in.’’
Tennessee has never been to a Final Four in men’s basketball. But Punter has bigger goals for some of his former teammates.
Asked who will win the national championship this season, Punter didn’t hesitate.
“Tennessee Vols, baby,’’ he said. “Tennessee Vols. No doubt about it. No doubt about it.’’
Biggest single-season scoring jumps in UT men’s basketball history
NAME, YEARS AVERAGES INCREASE
Terry Crosby (1976-77 to 1977-78) 3.9 to 19.0 (15.1)
Kevin Punter (2014-15 to 2015-16) 10.3 to 22.2 (11.9)
Lang Wiseman (1989-90 to 1990-91) 2.8 to 13.2 (10.4)
Dale Ellis (1979-80 to 1980-81) 7.1 to 17.7 (10.6)
Reggie Johnson (1976-77 to 1977-78) 11.0 to 21.2 (10.2)