John Puk felt he wasn’t reaching his potential as a Division I athlete.
So he transformed an already physically fit body into a 6-foot-10, 235-pound force in the middle.
The new-and-improved Puk will show off his ripped physique and power inside game when the University at Albany opens its season tonight at 6:30 against Duquesne of the Atlantic-10.
Puk was already an extremely mobile big man who could run the floor with ease. But his offensive skills never caught up to his physical ones.
As a freshman, the native of Waterloo, Iowa, started 26 of 32 games and averaged 2.6 points and 3.7 rebounds to go along with 37 blocked shots.
He was set to take the next step as the Great Danes’ starting center last year when he contracted cellulitis, a skin infection on his leg, which limited him to just 15.2 minutes per game in 31 appearances. He averaged 2.2 points and 3.7 rebounds.
Puk, originally a non-scholarship player as a freshman, decided he wanted to make himself a better player and lost 35 pounds through a change in diet and a tough workout regimen all summer.
“I knew I had more in me,” said Puk, whose ripped biceps are evidence of his commitment to getting stronger. “I worked hard in the gym, and I changed my diet. I’m eating a much more nutritious diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables now, and I hit the weight room.”
UAlbany head coach Will Brown is extremely impressed with the new Puk.
“John Puk has been the most impressive player we’ve had all training camp and preseason. He’s dunking and hitting the glass really hard now. He’s leaner and fitter. Everything is effortless on the court,” said Brown. “He is also much more confident in his abilities, because his teammates are confident in him. Hopefully, he will maintain that confidence level once the season starts.”
Junior forward Luke Devlin, who had his own injury problems last year, took a timeout during Wednesday’s media briefing to remind the reporters that Puk is a changed man.
“I don’t want to put any pressure on him, but I’m very impressed with John Puk. Now we have another inside force that should really help us,” Devlin said.
Puk’s modesty prevented him from discussing his personal goals, but he did admit that he wants to be a big part of UAlbany’s drive for an America East Conference title this year.
“I have high expectations for myself, and I want to do everything I can to help this team,” he said.
Although the Great Danes lost 35 points a game when leading scorers Gerardo Suero and Logan Aronhalt decided not to return, they still have plenty of offensive firepower and should show it off against the Dukes.
One of the team’s top scorers should be senior guard Jacob Iati, who became a key player down the stretch on last year’s team. Before the final seven games, he was averaging a little over nine minutes and just 2.0 points per game. But he emerged as a scoring threat with three 20-point games.
“I expect a lot from myself, and I can’t wait to get this season started,” he said. “We have a lot of players who can score on this team, including some newcomers. All we’ve got to do is help them make the transition to Division I. It’s a little different.”
Along with Iati and senior point guard Mike Black, who averaged better than 13 points per game, other key players for the Danes include the 6-8 Devlin and 6-9 senior Blake Metcalf up front, along with 6-4 Jayson Guerrier at the small forward.
Junior college transfers Gary Johnson (6-6 forward), Dave Wiegmann (6-8 forward) and DJ Evans (5-9 guard) join with 6-6 sophomore forward Sam Rowley, 6-2 sophomore guard Tanner Gibson and 6-4 red-shirt freshman guard Peter Hooley to provide a strong bench.
Duquesne’s probable starters are 6-1 senior guard Sean Johnson, the team’s only double-digit returning scorer at 11.3 ppg, , 6-4 sophomore guard P.J. Torres, 6-9 sophomore forward Mamadou Datt, 6-4 junior forward Jerry Jones and 6-6 senior center Andre Marhold.
“Duquesne has a new coach who wants to instill his style of play on his team. They will be a transition team that rebounds well,” Brown said. “They’ve got four experienced guys who they can lean on. All of their kids were recruited at a high level. Any time you play up in level, you are playing against better athletes and quicker athletes.”
In the second game of tonight’s double-header, the UAlbany women’s team opens its season against Fordham. The Great Danes, who won their first America East Conference championship and earned their inaugural trip to the NCAA tournament last year, return most of their starters, including two-time defensive player of the year Ebone Henry, three-time league rebounding champion Julie Forster and three-point specialist Lindsey Lowrie.