When rising sophomore Darius Thompson transferred and November signee Larry Austin switched his allegiance to Xavier last spring, it appeared that nobody would be Tennessee’s point guard for 2014-15. Now it appears that everybody will be … almost everybody, anyway.
Punter will bring the ball up the floor much of the time but senior shooting guard Josh Richardson will be nearby to share that responsibility. Small forward Devon Baulkman played some point at Gulf Coast Community College, and Armani Moore essentially will play point forward, helping direct the ball to the right spots at the right times. Essentially, Tennessee will have four guys sharing the point-guard responsibilities.
“We tried to get Kev off of the ball just a little bit, and Josh has embraced it a little bit, too,” head coach Donnie Tyndall said. “Neither of those guys, as we all know, is a prototypical point guard but Josh's assist-to-turnover ratio has been solid, so he's going to play some point for us, as well."
Moore’s presence in the lineup also will relieve some pressure on Punter.
"We'll do some dribble hand-off stuff when you run the offense through the four man, and Armani Moore will play a lot at the four,” Tyndall said. “He is really more of a perimeter player, so he'll be able to create some mismatches and soften the defense up. When he catches, you know he can drive a big guy. Then, when the defense softens up, you don't have to put as much pressure on your point guard.”
Against opponents who routinely pressure the ball, Tennessee will utilize Punter and Richardson in a two-point guard system.
“We’ll do some two-guard front stuff, like the Nets ran years ago with Jason Kidd,” Tyndall said. “That gives Punter and Josh both an opportunity to handle, and it doesn't put the pressure on just one guy."
No one is happier about the point-guard-by-committee approach than Punter. He’s getting a crash course in point-guard play this preseason, so he welcomes any ball-handling assistance he gets from teammates.
“Yeah, it’s helped me a lot,” he said. “It takes a lot of pressure off me and pushed me to where I’m more comfortable and natural at it.”
Although he always played shooting guard, Punter admits having attributes that should translate well at the point.
“My IQ and intelligence – knowing when not to over-dribble and just get rid of the ball,” he said. “Sometimes point guards tend to dribble too much instead of just knowing where guys should be and delivering the ball there.”
Being paired with Richardson in Tennessee’s backcourt should make Punter’s transition to point guard immeasurably easier.
“Josh is a great guy,” Punter said. “He’s an easy person to talk to. He’s been here and he understands. It’s his fourth year here, and he’s been to The (NCAA) Tournament. If there’s a problem, we’ll talk about it and come to an understanding.
“Communication is key. He knows where I’m going; I know where he’s going. We just have to make sure we’re always on the same page.”
Richardson played some point guard as a Vol freshman and is happy to return to that role on a part-time basis as a senior.
“For a guy like Kevin, who’s not a true point guard but is having to play it, me being able to step up and play it with him a little bit will enable him to play a little bit looser – not worry so much about having to call the play or how close the defense is guarding,” Richardson said. “He can just pass off to me if he needs me to help him out. That will let him play into his flow a little bit more.”
Punter was a first-team Junior College All-America shooting guard last winter, so he was a bit skeptical when approached about the switch to point guard. He’s a much better fit at shooting guard.
“I’m always going to thrive at that position because I’ve been doing it all of my life,” he said. “But I trust in Coach; he knows what he’s doing. I trust in my teammates; they know what they’re doing. I have confidence that we’re all going to get the job done.”
Punter shot a sizzling 57.1 percent from the field en route to averaging 20.3 points per game for State Fair Community College in Missouri last winter, then posted a whopping 37.8 points per game in the Rocky Top League last June. He projects to be the best scoring threat the Vols have had at point guard since C.J. Watson averaged 15.3 points per game as a senior in 2005-06.
“Kevin’s a high-percentage shooter,” Richardson said. “I tell him every day, ‘If you see an open look, take it.’ Me being back there with him will let him play into his flow a little bit more.”
Punter, who debuts as Tennessee's point guard in Monday night's exhibition opener versus Pikeville (Kentucky) University, admits that he'll be looking for his shot and not just setting up shots for others.
“Oh, yeah, yeah,” he said, nodding emphatically. “Everyone gets the opportunity to shoot in our offense. It’s a whole bunch of unselfish guys making the extra pass and looking for each other, so everyone gets the opportunity to shoot it.”
Borrowing from the football team, Tennessee will rely heavily on handoffs this season. This will reduce the amount of passing Punter has to do.
“Exactly,” he said. “We do a lot of handoffs in practice, and everything jells perfectly. I’ll play the one (point) a lot but when we’re going up and down you probably won’t be able to tell I’m the one. All five guys are involved; that’s the type of offense we have.”
For a guy who was less than thrilled about moving to point guard, Punter is making the best of the situation now that he has come to grips with it.
“It’s pretty good,” he said. “You can’t run away from things like that, even when you haven’t ever done it in your life. I look forward to it.”