‘They all want him to emerge’: Winthrop basketball coach talks about development of sophomore
Lisa Kelsey’s Pretzel Jello is a tough dish to classify.
It’s sweet but not exactly a dessert, a jello dish that can work like cranberry sauce as an ideal offset to a heavy and savory Thanksgiving meal.
Tom Pupavac could care less how Pretzel Jello is categorized. The Winthrop sophomore ate a bunch of it at Lisa and Pat Kelsey’s house Thursday for Thanksgiving. Winthrop’s men’s basketball coach had members of his team over for a feast, which was in keeping with a goal of Pupavac’s during the last 18 months that he’s been in America: to eat as much as he can.
“Calories, calories, calories,” he said Friday.
The 6-foot-10 Australian has a slender build and a speedy metabolism. His parents are 6-foot-1 and 5-foot-6, so he didn’t grow up in a family that ate like big people. One of the biggest differences between Australian and American basketball is the physicality, and Pupavac is trying to pack on pounds to deal with that disparity. He arrived in Rock Hill in the summer of 2017 weighing 214 pounds. He weighs 230 now, but even adding 16 pounds has been a struggle.
“Offseason I was trying to eat as much as I can, work out as much as I can, just to put on bulk weight,” Pupavac said. “We worked over the summer on eating until we wanted to throw up.”
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Pupavac’s rookie season was a bit of a wash.
He probably would have redshirted had Duby Okeke not transferred in May, 2017, which would have allowed Pupavac to work on weight-gain and strength increases without burning a year of eligibility. Instead, he’s played 84 total minutes in a Winthrop jersey, 55 of those coming against non-Division I opponents, scoring 20 points in 20 games. Those numbers may have caused some fans in Winthrop Coliseum to wonder why the 6-10 guy isn’t playing more?
An even bigger change going on inside Pupavac’s head may answer that question. He showed up to his official visit to Winthrop in the fall of 2016 wearing Vans skateboarding shoes, a little hint at the relaxed coastal life he led in Australia.
He never had to unleash an inner monster back in Oz because he was so much bigger than his competition. Not the case in America, where the game is so much more physical and putting bigger players on a poster -- dunking on big men -- is a trophy of sorts sought by players of all sizes.
“There’s got to be a mean streak,” said Winthrop assistant coach Jayson Gee, who is working closely with Pupavac. “I’ve even seen him grunt a few times and show an outward emotion of competitiveness. He never had to apply that in his previous environment. He’s gaining the ability to be more competitive and intense, assertive.”
Games like Saturday’s home contest against Warren Wilson College, which plays in the United States College Athletics Association and has two players taller than 6-foot-3, are invaluable for Eagles like Pupavac. Winthrop put away the Owls with a 20-3 run midway thru the first half, en route to a 116-76 blowout. Pupavac entered the contest with a couple minutes left in the first half and immediately tried to dunk on a Warren Wilson player, who fouled him.
Kelsey went into Winthrop’s locker room at halftime and immediately praised Pupavac for trying to bang one on an opponent. His teammates started clapping and cheering.
“Those guys all want Tommy to emerge, to take a step up and become more aggressive, because they like him so much and he’s such a great teammate,” said Kelsey. “Trying to dunk on people is part of it. Trying to eat loose balls and go be selfish on the backboard is part of it.”
Gee said that Pupavac’s development is right on schedule. Post players simply take longer to develop.
“Tommy is like wine,” Gee said. “He’s gonna get better with time. There are some obvious gifts and talents he has, and obviously we need to get him stronger and things of that nature. But big kids take longer.”
A big surprise
Pupavac adapted to American life outside of Winthrop Coliseum much quicker.
He’s got an American girlfriend who plays on Winthrop’s lacrosse team, and he’s become close friends with the Eagles’ other Australian basketball player, Kyle Zunic, who he first met in Rock Hill. Pupavac has been pleasantly surprised by the fervent college sports scene in America, which is unique in the world, and he’s become a fan of chicken wings, which aren’t as big a thing in Australia.
Homesickness has not been an issue, important considering Pupavac is 9,900 miles from his family and his home in Geelong, Australia.
“It’s been a huge personality change for me,” said Pupavac. “Having to adapt to a different style of basketball, different style of people, it’s been really good for me to adapt to that. I’ve just grown so much.”
Pupavac is majoring in business and he’s taking advantage of the mentorship program that Gee set up this past offseason, a way to link Winthrop players with leaders in the local business community and ensure that their college experience sets them up for a future beyond basketball. Pupavac is working with David Williams, of Williams & Fudge, and the big Aussie has shown initiative to take advantage of his access to a prominent Rock Hill business leader.
“That program is designed to help them invest in their real futures,” said Gee. “There is real value in a U.S. education, and he’s obviously made that a priority, to leave your home. And now the opportunities that exist with having someone in your professional field of what you want to do for a living that can help you, and it’s a double bonus because it further indoctrinates him to the United States.”
Whether it’s working with Williams & Fudge, or with coaches spending extra time on him, all have said Pupavac makes their extra efforts worthwhile. He’s repaid their interest with equal effort and enthusiasm. And that increases the likelihood that Pupavac makes an impact for Winthrop basketball in the coming years.
“I think he’s gonna be a big surprise in our future,” said Gee. “When that is, I don’t have a crystal ball. But I’ve been doing this 30 years and I know that there are things that he brings to the table that you can’t coach, and the things that are missing just need some time to develop inside of him.”