You couldn't ask for more when the best coach in Europe wants you as his first pick for the new project. But five years ago, Kevin Punter wasn't in a position to choose. Before becoming the highest-paid player in Serbia, Punter made $4-5k a month and was ready to go home after his first few months in Europe.

BasketNews invites you to go through Kevin Punter's story, which could set an example for other American players, how patience, adjustment, and hard work can take you to places.

The fate-changing shot?

Kevin Punter remembers that play very well to this day. And it still hurts.

It was the EuroLeague Final 4 semifinal game AX Armani Exchange vs. Barcelona. In his first Final 4 game ever, 28-year-old shooting guard had 23 points against the toughest defense in the EuroLeague. 

KP had just tied the game (82-82) with a long 3-pointer with 104 seconds to play. Soon he had an excellent chance to close the game with the ball in his hands and 8 seconds remaining.

"I had a great look," Punter admits on the Urbonus podcast, with sorrow in his voice.

"Malcolm (Delaney) had a ball in the left side. He used the screen, and he kicked it out to me. All I remember was catching it and being ready to shoot.

But... Oh man, it hurts me even when I talk about it sometimes...

I got a bump, put the ball down first because he jumped. I worked on this shot... I can't even tell you, a million times... So he jumps, I go right to, and I shoot like any other shot. And it said: 'Not today. I'm not going in tonight'.

And then the game went by so fast. And he was hitting the other shot in the other end.

The shot felt good. None was off. But that was a shot I shoot million times."

Punter works so hard that he can sit and look at the mirror without beating himself. Of course, he was upset at the moment. But since he left everything in the gym to set himself in the best possible way for that crucial moment, he couldn't condemn himself.

But oh boy, how that shot could have changed things. Starting from AX Armani Exchange fate of the season to maybe even Punter's future in Milan.

"I just know if I hit that shot, we're in the finals. We play against Efes. We beat them twice in the regular season, so I like my chances," Punter told. "We all know it's going to be a game. But we're in the EuroLeague finals. That's one game. You put yourself in a position to win one game.

I thought about it weeks after the Final 4. But I try not to think about it too much."

'I thought I was going back'

Milan won the game for third place but was swept in the Italian League finals against Virtus Bologna.

To everyone's surprise, Milan's top scorer Kevin Punter didn't sign an extension. Instead, he shook up the European market by signing with the EuroCup team, Partizan Belgrade. Per media reports, he became the highest-paid player in Serbia ever. He was the first signing of Zeljko Obradovic. 

"Man..." Punter smiles. "I thought I was going back (to Milan), to be honest with you. But that's the business of basketball."

Punter assures Partizan's offer had nothing to do with his decision not to stay in Milan. According to KP, those negotiations with Milan ended before the Partizan came in.

When he understood that he'd go somewhere else, Zeljko Obradovic called him. It took 2-3 phone calls before making up his mind. At first, he wasn't a fan of this idea of switching from the EuroLeague to EuroCup. But after he thought about it, Punter accepted the challenge.

"Obradovic likes challenges. He's coming back to coaching. He wants to go hard and work hard. My life has been full of challenges since I was a little kid. Automatically I was thumbs up for that," Punter told. "We want to get back to the EuroLeague. That gives you more motivation to try to do something special. In the beginning, it was a little "I don't know." But after I thought about it, it was an easy decision to make."

Weird start in Europe

Punter was on the wishlist of elite European clubs last summer. So it made him smile when he was asked about his free agency status in Europe five years ago, before starting his professional career.

"$40k," Punter corrects me when I mention his first salary in Lavrio, the Greek team.

From 2016 to 2018, he played in Greece, Belgium (Telenet Giants Antwerp), and Poland (Rosa Radom).

"In the beginning, I didn’t even embrace it," Punter remembers his tough beginnings. "I struggled a lot just off the court. I just tried to find myself, find my way. That’s what kept me at ease. But off the court, it was tough, man. I couldn’t really… I almost went home in December. A lot of people don’t know that. I was talking with my agent, and I was like: I don’t know…"

For us Europeans, sometimes it's hard to understand that cultural change. KP explains that it starts with the simplest daily life things, such as phone carriers or different sockets.

"When you never been out of America, it can be a lot. Just cultural change, the food, the time change, the language, the smell was different, the way of living, the style... It was completely different from what I and Americans are used to. I’m used to it now, but now I know how to deal with certain things of that nature. I can only imagine someone who has never been in an environment like this. And it’s right at you. Mentally I wasn’t even ready for this."

Besides all of these off-the-court changes, Punter remembers how weird European basketball was.

"The style of basketball was weird. Why do you do this? Why do you make fouls in the fast break? I used to hate that. Now I look to do it every chance I get. Because now you start to understand the game and why they do it," Punter told. "But in my first year, I thought it was the stupidest thing ever. Because in states, they don’t do that. In the NBA or college, they don’t do anything like that. And that’s what we watch as Americans.

But you start to understand why you do it. You can make a realistic foul to stop the whole break, with no two points.  I started understanding how to use fouls when I came to Europe. Most Americans coming to Europe don’t understand that. They probably won’t tell you, but I tell you because that’s true."

In the moment of doubt, Punter had a good reality check. The turning point which forced him to stay in Greece was straightforward.

"Checks. I was getting 5k per month. I was broke. So I couldn’t go home. If I go home, well, what I’m going to do? If I’m going to the G League, it’s going to be less than this. So what? So you went from the situation you thought was the worst in the world to now something less what you even get? So be more grateful," Punter told on the Urbonus podcast. "Other people do worse. Every month getting paid helped me a lot. Because it was my first time getting any real money. It wasn’t a lot, but I was grateful for it. And that kept me going hard every day as a young kid who not really had any money growing up. I wanted to be great. And I love basketball. Every time I went to the gym and worked out, I didn’t think about anything else in the world. I was at ease playing basketball. That helped me during my rookie year. And I played for a great coach (Christos Serelis). He allowed me to be me on the court. That helped tremendously."

The chip that will never go away

Kevin Punter started to embrace this European experience. Every day he was figuring out things by himself. And he just went from there. Today he's a two-time FIBA Champions League winner, Greek and Italian cup champion, Italian SuperCup holder. He became the unstoppable offensive force in all different levels of European club basketball.

I interviewed Kevin before his first pre-season appearance with Partizan jersey. He missed the first few weeks of action due to precautionary reasons. But he quickly showed an example for his new teammates in Istanbul.

In a triple-overtime win against Monaco in the Istanball Cup semifinal, Punter played 32 minutes and scored 21 points on 8 for 14 shooting.

He was vocal, helping his young teammates on both ends of the floor. He threw himself on the floor in an exhausting 55-minute fight. His body was aching after the game, but Punter was all smiling, being able to contribute to his team's win against the EuroLeague club 120-114.

As the highest-paid player in Serbia and the most experienced on his team, Punter carries all these Partizan family hopes on his shoulders.

"That chip on my shoulder is never going away. It‘s impossible. Just from where I come from, things I got to do to get there, it‘s for everywhere. I have my chip on my shoulders this year like no other."

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