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Kevin Punter, all the way from The Bronx to Milan, consistently beating the odds

22/06/2020
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There have been at least three crucial moments in Kevin Punter’s career. The first was when he left New York to move to North Carolina with only one goal in mind: fixing his academic grades so that he could earn a sports scholarship. He was struggling so he called his mother announcing his return at home. It was a momentary crisis. Then Punter responded and finally managed to enter the State Fair Community College, in Sedalia, Missouri.

The second goes back to the end of his first season at State Fair, when his coach Kevin Thomas suggested that he avoid going directly to a first division college, contrary to what he was recommending to two other teammates. “He told me that I probably would never have been a major first division player – said Punter -, and I still don’t forget those words. The Coach is one of my best friends, to this day, but I can’t forget those words. Every day they were my biggest motivation. When I woke up in the morning and I didn’t want to go to practice, those words pushed me out of bed.” The following year, Punter became a more than 20-point per game scorer and received a scholarship from the University of Tennessee.

The third turning point occurred after a decent first season with the Volunteers. His coach was Donnie Tyndall, who earlier had tried to recruit him for Morehead State. Punter averaged around 10 points per game. Tyndall was replaced by Rick Barnes, a big name, a coach who had worked for 17 years at Texas, developing future NBA stars such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant, with 15 NBA first round picks coached in his career. Barnes called Punter and suggested that he completely change his shooting mechanic. “It was not an easy decision, changing certain habits is difficult. Also, he was a good shooter, only he had a bad mechanic. His elbow tended to go all the way to the right. Change was needed to make the leap,” said Barnes. Punter accepted the advice and took off, becoming a 22-point per game scorer. Working has never scared Punter, and his career is a testament to perseverance. “It takes 21 days to build a mental habit and only a few hours to destroy it, the Coach told me. In the summer I didn’t miss a single day and I took over 2.000 shots per day. It doesn’t scare me to work,” said Punter.

Kevin Punter comes from the Bronx and grew up like all New Yorkers on playgrounds. He never had a great reputation. “In New York everyone plays the game, when you go to the park you wait your turn, sometimes you go unnoticed and that’s what happened to me,” he says. When the high school career was about to end, doubts peeked out. “I didn’t have any major college scholarship offer so I was a little scared. I went to a prep school in North Carolina to find out if opening any doors was possible. I was at a point where I had to decide whether to continue or not.” The final season in Tennessee, where he played alongside Josh Richardson of the Philadelphia 76ers, was exceptional – he was the second scorer of one of the best conferences in America – but also the only one. It was too late to become a popular name. He also had a stress fracture in his right foot that year that forced him to skip the last eight games of the season, shortly after conquering the most prestigious win of his career, against Kentucky, scoring 27 points before the future Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray.

After going undrafted, Punter practically had to start over again. In Europe, he played every year at a consistently higher level, starting from Lavrio in Greece then moving to Rosa Radom in Poland then Antwerp in Belgium until having his breakout year at AEK Athens: he arrived in Athens at the mid-season point in 2018, immediately won the Greek Cup, scoring 14 points in the final against Olympiacos despite coming off the bench, and then BCL. Punter – who in Nymburk at the end had hit the three to advance to the quarterfinals (look at the clip below) – scored 16 points in the semifinal against Murcia and as many in the final against AS Monaco. A year later, he returned to play the BCL Final Four this time with Virtus Bologna and won them again, this time not only as the event top scorer but also as the MVP. In the semifinal against Bamberg, he scored 21 points with eight rebounds, in the final against Tenerife he had 26 points and seven rebounds.

Given that his goal has always been to land to the EuroLeague, he signed exactly for Olympiacos Piraeus and made his debut in 2019.The season in Greece did not go very well: Olympiacos also changed coach, replacing David Blatt with Georgios Bartzokas. Punter played 11 games and averaged 6.8 points. But when he went to the Red Star Belgrade, working again with Dragan Sakota, the coach that he had at AEK Athens, his numbers exploded: 15.9 points, 1.5 assists on average and above all an unreal 48.1% from three-point range (as well as 42/47 from the line, 89.4%). In the last nine games of the EuroLeague season, he has scored nine times in double digits and four times has reached at least 20 points. “In my first season in the EuroLeague, it was important for me to get my feet wet and immediately show that I can help a team win,” he said after scoring the three to win the game in Villeurbanne after a comeback from 21 points behind. “It’s a shot that I’ve done and scored thousands of times,” he said. From the right, he used the dribble to move to the center, then stopped and fired confidently before the much taller Ismael Bako. It was almost his coming-out party. Here you have the video.

Now Olimpia. It’s his European team number eight, but it’s the third in the EuroLeague and probably the first who’s counting on him. It’s enough to get him excited. “I’m ecstatic, I cant’t wait to start working and try to do something special with my new team and my teammates,” he said.

KEVIN PUNTER @TENNESSEE
KEVIN PUNTER @ AEK
KEVIN PUNTER @ VIRTUS BOLOGNA