You might think that a young basketball player who was good enough to reach a high level at a good college was already on the right road to life as a professional: just carry on doing what you’ve always done would probably be the wisest advice. Your talent has taken you this far, so keep working hard and follow the same path.
Very often, though, progressing to the next level requires something extra, something different. A change. Even, sometimes, a big change. Take, for example, Olympiacos Piraeus shooting guard Kevin Punter.
At the age of 21, Punter was a solid player for the University of Tennessee, heading into his senior year with hopes of advancing into the professional game. But then his new coach, the highly respected Rick Barnes – who had just arrived in Tennessee after 17 years at the University of Texas – delivered a bombshell.
"For him to tell me I could shoot better than I already did…well, that was kinda crazy. Because I was good."
"He basically told me that if I wanted to become a professional, I had to completely change the way I shoot," recalled Punter. "For him to tell me I could shoot better than I already did…well, that was kinda crazy. Because I was good. I always shot the ball well. But he said I could shoot even better.
"The problem he identified was that the ball was taking too long to get out of my hands. I used to shoot from way back, almost behind my head. And he said: 'At the next level, guys are quicker, they can jump higher. You have to get a quicker release.' So he changed my technique to the way I shoot now. Up until my junior year of college, my shot was completely different. If you saw the tape of my shooting technique back then, you wouldn't even believe it!"
Of course, it's not quite as simple as just saying "change your shot" and expecting the new technique to magically fall into place. The process of actually carrying out Coach Barnes's instructions required Punter to spend many, many hours in the gym. A whole summer, in fact.
"From late May in 2015 through until October, I was working on my shot," he said. "That whole summer I didn't miss a day in the gym. I wasn't even doing any running or weights work – I just stayed inside the paint and took 2,000 shots a day. Starting right in front of the rim, then a couple of steps back, and as the summer went on I gradually started going further back. Just to get it to be a habit and have my muscles automatically understand: 'This is now the way I shoot.'
"Coach basically broke down my entire shot and rebuilt everything. He told me it takes 21 days to create a habit and just a few hours to break it. That stuck with me and I took his advice for what it was. I told myself: 'If I wanna be a pro, that’s just what I gotta do.' And he was right. My shot became a lot more efficient. I definitely shoot the ball a whole lot better now."
In addition to committing himself to those countless hours of toil in the gym, Punter was also forced to confront the psychologically uncomfortable fact that a highly respected coach had told him to – more or less – to forget everything that had made him successful. And he admitted that the mental leap was just as difficult as the physical commitment, saying: "It's hard to tell a basketball player who's been playing for years, 'Oh, you gotta change your shot.' Most players wouldn’t listen. They might try it once but then be like, 'Forget this, I ain’t doing it. I already got this far with my own shot. How you gonna tell me to change it?'
"But I have always wanted to get better and I'm always looking for things that will make me better. And if a coach like him is telling me something, why not take that advice? He coached a lot of big-time guys and he knows a lot about the game, so when he was saying he could make me better when he had already coached a bunch of guys who became successful pros, I needed to listen."
The stats back up coach Barnes's belief that change was necessary with Punter's shooting percentages enjoying a major improvement in his senior year: his two-point efficiency increased from 47.6% to 52.2%; his three-point accuracy improved from 35.2% to 36.9%, and his free throw efficiency shot up from 68.5% to 81.7%. Those numbers were good enough for Punter to gain his first professional contract with Lavrio in Greece. Several moves later – from Antwerp to Rosa Radom, AEK Athens, Virtus Bologna and now, four years after his summer of change, finally arriving in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague with Olympiacos.
Naturally, Punter would not say for one second that he has "arrived", and he is still hungry to keep on getting better. "I just have that work ethic," he said. "People know me for that. I'm always going to outwork anybody, I don't care who you are. For me, that’s just what I’m used to. Both my parents are hustlers who grind, so I grew up in that environment. If I'm not working hard, I’m not comfortable."
"That whole summer I didn't miss a day in the gym. I wasn't even doing any running or weights work – I just stayed inside the paint and took 2,000 shots a day."
Through the first four games of the current season, Punter has averaged 10.0 points to become Olympiacos’s fourth-highest scorer behind Vassilis Spanoulis, Georgios Printezis and Nikola Milutinov. Not bad for a guy playing in his first EuroLeague season. But he believes there is much more to come.
"I always try to pick apart my game and see what I can improve," Punter asserted. "This season I want to show I can play at this level, with and against really good players. A lot of people are sleeping on us, but I've been in situations before where people have slept on me and slept on my team, so this situation is the same. I've won everywhere I went, even in places where nobody thought we would win."
You heard the man. Don't go sleeping on Kevin Punter.