Putney making big strides

By Stephen Sellner

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Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

He may just be the most complete player on the Massachusetts men’s basketball team. And his name isn’t Chaz Williams.

It’s the man who’s spent most of the first 19 games soaring above the rim with his thunderous slams and knocking down 3-point baskets in transition: sophomore Raphiael Putney.

But you can call him ‘Skinny.’ That’s the name he’s carried with him ever since his Amateur Athletic Union days as a sophomore in high school playing for DC Triple Threat.

The 6-foot-9, 185-pound power forward has leaped onto the stage this season for the Minutemen and has solidified himself as one of the premier players on the squad.

Putney does it all for UMass. The Woodbridge, Va., native is second on the team in scoring with 10.2 points per contest, grabs 5.1 boards a night and leads the Minutemen with his 24 blocked shots on the defensive end.

UMass coach Derek Kellogg, who swayed Putney to Amherst as the final piece to his first official recruiting class with the Minutemen, said he feels the forward’s versatility and undeniable athleticism separates him from others at his position.

“I think the biggest thing is that he’s a kid that defensively can cover a guard … but also go in there and rebound with the big guys and give some help inside because of his length and his size and I think that’s huge,” said Kellogg. “And then to have his athleticism to where he can get out in transition and shoot the 3 at 6-foot-9 gives us a weapon that I don’t think a lot of teams have.”

Putney’s basketball days started in the sixth grade, when he played for his town’s middle school squad. But it wasn’t until his junior year of high school that he realized he was a special talent.

He shot up three inches to 6-foot-7 over the summer bridging his sophomore and junior year of high school, at which point his AAU coaches told him he had the potential to play Division I basketball.

Kellogg first spotted Putney in 2008 at the Reebok All-American camp in Philadelphia, where ‘Skinny’ was selected to play in the camp’s All-Star Game.

“I saw this really kind of thin, athletic kid that seemed like he enjoyed to play the game and I was immediately drawn to his potential where I was watching him and felt down that the line, given some time and some of his nurturing, he could become a really good player,” said Kellogg.

Putney liked the prospect of playing for UMass because of Kellogg, turning down other offers from George Mason, Virginia Tech and St. Joseph’s among others, he said.

“I knew that he played here so I liked coach [Kellogg] and he’s got some history out here and I thought it’d be a good chance for me to come here and learn from his experience that he played at UMass and then just try to get an Atlantic 10 championship there,” said Putney.

And so it was finalized in November 2008; Putney was officially a Minuteman.

He was redshirted for the 2009 season, but Kellogg said it was the right decision for the big man and feels it aided his development and transition to the college game.

“I think that was … huge for him to get him matured both on and off the court, getting acclimated to UMass and the academics, but also how physical and tough the college game can be at this level and I thought that first year gave him a good test of [not] just being able to practice, but go against guys that were college players,” said Kellogg. “From that point on, I think he really decided that he was going to put in an effort to become a good college player.”

As a redshirt freshman in 2010, Putney appeared in 29 of the team’s 30 games, averaging 4.4 points per contest while seeing an average of 12.7 minutes on the court.

In the offseason, Putney went to work.

After shooting just 22 percent from 3-point range the year before, ‘Skinny’ knew he had the potential to better that part of his game.

“I’ve been at the gym working over the summer trying to get my 3-point shot better because last year I didn’t have as good of range as I wanted to but … coming into the new season, I think I worked hard for it and now its showing on the court,” he said.

A year later, Putney is connecting from downtown at 38 percent, as the 3-point shot has quickly become a key element to his game that makes him a mismatch nightmare for opponents.

His shooting stroke wasn’t the only thing he did to better his game, however.

When Kellogg recruited him, he knew he wasn’t a “finished product,” and felt that he needed to spend valuable time in the weight room to reach his potential.

And that’s exactly what he did in the offseason, putting in the necessary time and hard work with strength and conditioning coach Richard Hogans to build up his strength.

“He’s been a good help to me,” said Putney. “He’s been pushing me in the weight room and I’ve been getting a lot stronger with him and working with him on my diet and it’s been good so far. I’m hoping to keep it up.”

According to Putney, the muscle and weight he gained over the summer has paid dividends not only in extending his range behind the arc but in his rebounding as well, as he improved upon his mark of just three rebounds a game in 2010.

The factor that has arguably been the biggest influence on his transformation to stardom this year has been the installation of the up-tempo, full-court press style of play that Kellogg introduced for the 2011-2012 campaign.

Putney’s ability to run up and down the floor and make impact plays on both ends of the court makes the new offense “a perfect fit for me.” He’s consistently on the receiving end of alley-oop lobs from Williams (one of which ended up on a recent edition of Sportscenter), connecting on 3-point baskets in transition and rejecting lay-ups on the break.

“[His teammates] are realizing that he’s becoming a focal point of our offense and our defense and they’re starting to respect the fact that he can knock down 3s and make plays for his teammates,” said Kellogg.

As Putney knows all too well, in order to get better you have to put in the right amount of work to do so.

“I got a lot of potential, my coaches keep telling me every day, but you … got to put in hard work and that’s it,” he said.

As for this year’s team, Putney explained that the Minutemen have the ability to contend with the top teams in the A-10, and possibly the country, on any given night.

“I think, right now, we can be one of the top teams in the Atlantic 10 [conference] this year and win our league, actually,” said Putney. “I think every team that we step up to we are capable of beating if we just focus in and just do everything we can to get to our conference championship and hopefully go to the NCAA tournament this year.”

If ‘Skinny’ keeps playing this way, he just might be right.

Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.