Punter growing looking to lead
Back in March, when Rick Barnes' name was first linked to the basketball coaching vacancy at Tennessee, Kevin Punter had a thought that doesn't require much explanation.
"I'm glad we got a coach," Punter recalled thinking.
Barnes will be Tennessee's third coach in three seasons, and Punter's second in two years at the school. But the senior guard didn't need an introduction to the new hire.
He knew all about Barnes' 17 years at Texas, a stint that included 16 NCAA tournament trips and one Final Four appearance. He knew about the big names that have played for Barnes, too --- the biggest name included.
"I grew up watching him when he had Kevin Durant, who is one of my favorite players," Punter said. "So I was already familiar with him. Me playing under him, our guys playing under him, it's pretty cool."
But cool isn't a thought on the practice floor. There, it's just basketball. It's Coach Barnes, not Durant's former mentor.
"A lot of times, when he's your coach, you don't really look at it like that," Punter said. "It's just another coach, trying to get better.
"But we know what he can bring to this university, to this team."
What Punter brought Monday night, during the early game at the Rocky Top League at Catholic High School, was 57 points. He made 22 of 34 shots, 10 of 12 free throws and 3 of 7 3-point attempts. Former Vol Jordan McRae holds the league scoring record at 65.
Asked how Punters puts together that kind of stat line, even in a summer-league game, he was short on words in response.
"I just scored the ball," he said. "Shots went in."
This summer, Punter's second in Knoxville, is a mixed bag of what's being worked on.
"Everything," Punter said. "From being a leader, point guard skills, defensively. Little bit of everything.
"Trying to help the team, help myself."
He could be asked to play point guard for Barnes' first Tennessee team, one that lacks a defined name at the position. Or he could play two-guard, with Devon Baulkman running point. Or maybe Armani Moore.
But that's none of Punter's concern in the third week of June.
"Wherever coach throws me in at, or whatever he needs me to do," Punter said, "I'll just try to go out there and do it."
The settling-in phase between Barnes and his new roster is a two-way street --- "We're learning coach, coach is learning us," Punter said --- but a change in style isn't necessarily in order.
"We want to run, just like last year," Punter said. "We tried to run and we did run. But this year, same thing.
"We've got to run, get some wide-open dunks, shoot some 3's. Have fun with it."
Punter is one of four seniors on Tennessee's fresh-face roster, but only Derek Reese and Armani Moore are four-year players on roster. Both Punter and Baulkman were brought in last year under former coach Donnie Tyndall.
But Punter knows his leadership has to match that of a fourth-year starter.
"The back of my mind, I know this is my last year, that I have to go out with a bang, helping these guys out," Punter said. "But for me, just take it day by day. Work everyday and of course improve from last year."
Punter started 31 times in 32 games last year, averaging 10.3 points over 31 minutes per game. But this time around is different, a whole new comfort level that goes with it.
"I have a year under my belt, I know what to expect," Punter said. "Last year, of course, I didn't know what to expect. This year I know what to expect, I know how to pick my spots a lot better."