He’ll be the first to tell you.
The State Fair (Mo.) Community College transfer thought he was heading to two years of stability when he committed to Tennessee. That was before the Vols let go of Donnie Tyndall amid an NCAA investigation into his time running the program at Southern Miss, beginning the search for a third coach in three years.
It was one of the biggest nightmares for a junior college transfer, switching head coaches after just one season left to play, and Punter contemplated leaving Knoxville behind — until he got a chance to speak with Rick Barnes in person.
“Coming form a junior college and having a coaching change, it was rough, and I did think about leaving,” Punter said. “But with a guy like (Barnes) coming in, the smartest thing to do was probably wait it out and see where his head was at and go from there.”
The first-year Tennessee head coach met with Punter personally, and the two seemed to talk about everything but basketball. After that meeting, he made up his mind.
“From that point there,” he said, “I knew he’s maybe the coach for me.”
The Brooklyn native begins preparation for his final season in Knoxville with the same winning expectations and a different position. His head coach dispels notions of a rebuilding roster, despite a true lack of size, young talent playing early and a changing of the point guard, thrusting Punter in a role he's rarely played.
Punter, who ran the point at times last season, will assume the duty full-time this year along with Armani Moore.
“I’d probably say the biggest adjustment for me is probably taking the full time job as being a point guard,” he said. “I’ve never done it before. Last year I was probably part time point guard. I’m doing way more full time. With coach, he expects his point guard to control the team.”
That transition includes an improved shooting stroke Barnes helped tweak after he first saw Punter in the gym. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound guard who averaged 10 points and two rebounds a game last year now boasts a renewed shot that’s much cleaner than the one he came to Tennessee with originally.
“It took me a while,” Punter said. “I’m good now, but when coach first approached me with it, it took me a while. It was frustrating. I just kept pushing. I don’t really quit when it comes to anything. I kept pushing and now, it’s really a part of me now.”
Punter has also been forced to switch up his mentality as he heads into his final year with the Vols. He’s used to being the guy who hears his name over the PA after dropping buckets as a known scorer off the ball. This year, he’ll focus more on distribution and heading the fast transition pace Barnes and his staff have drilled in their heads.
“Now I have to start thinking like a point guard, you know, pushing the floor, making sure guys are in the right spot, things like that,” he said. “Coach expects a lot from his point guard. For me, that’s been my biggest goal and I think I’ve been doing a really good job.”
But not everything has changed for Punter this year. He still goes to the gym so much he couldn't even estimate how many shots he took this summer in offseason workouts. He still serves as a mentor for the younger players who are adapting to life in the big boy world of basketball. He still also continues to put in the time as he develops in his new head coach's system.
"He's got to know how to keep his teammates engaged," Barnes said. "That's what he's learned probably as much as anything is how to play the point, but he's also learned a new system. He hasn't had a bad day. What you love about him is, he's got a motor. He can go all day long. He's going to have to play a lot of minutes. He's tough."
And that's one thing he won't change.