Jarnell Stokes’ decision to play basketball at Tennessee on Thursday represents the kind of giant step for the program that only the 17-year-old’s size-20 sneakers could provide.
Stokes, a 6-foot-8, 255-pound highly coveted power forward from Memphis, is the first prospect ranked No. 1 in the state of Tennessee to sign with the Vols in at least 13 years.
UT announced Friday that Stokes signed an institutional offer of financial aid and is enrolling for classes, which begin on Jan. 11. Stokes can begin practicing with the team once the NCAA Clearinghouse approves his high school transcript. The soonest he could play in games is after classes have started.
“We’re excited about Jarnell; he’s a talented young man, but more importantly a guy with substance and character,’’ Martin said following the Vols’ 66-63 win over East Tennessee State Friday night. “He’s worker, he’s in the gym all the time and in the mornings.
“When I got the job (March 27), he was the guy, when you talked about the 2012 class, he was the one guy we felt we had to throw the kitchen sink at, because you’re playing catch-up.’’
Ranked No. 11 nationally by Rivals.com, Stokes graduated from Memphis Southwind High School on Thursday.
In addition to Memphis, Stokes narrowed his list of schools to choose from to Kentucky, Florida, Connecticut, Arkansas and Texas A&M.
Stokes said in a phone interview following his verbal commitment press conference on Thursday that he struggled with his decision, and he didn’t even decide to make a decision until Tuesday.
“I didn’t start narrowing down my schools until two days ago,’’ said Stokes, who turns 18 on Jan. 7. “I told myself I had to start eliminating schools, because I liked too many of them. I had an idea, but with prayer comes answers.’’
Some 25 minutes before his news conference at a restaurant in Collierville, Stokes sent out a tweet thanking God for his answer.
The answer was Tennessee and Martin.
Stokes put himself in position to graduate high school early after the TSSAA ruled that he would be ineligible to play this season after transferring from Memphis Central, where he averaged 19 points and 14 rebounds as a junior last season.
Stokes said he had been leaning toward choosing Memphis before geting to know Martin. The Tigers didn’t have an open athletic scholarship for the 2011-12 season, but he qualified for an academic scholarship and coach Josh Pastner was pushing hard for him to walk-on. Kentucky wanted him to wait until the spring to sign. Florida, like UT, offered the opportunity to play right away.
Stokes’ decision to shun Memphis for UT isn’t to be taken lightly; the most recent No. 1-rated player out of Memphis to leave and play for the Vols was guard Tony Harris, 14 years ago.
Stokes admits when he came on his official visit, on Oct. 8 when the UT football team hosted Georgia, he did so out of a sense of duty.
“I came out of respect, because it’s my home state school,’’ Stokes said. “I still liked a lot of schools, but I thought to myself, ‘I’m really liking this school.’ ’’
Stokes’ conversations with Martin continued, and he found himself spending hours on the phone with him.
It turned out they had a lot of common. In addition to their faith, both place a high value on hard work and academics.
“Just listening to Coach Martin talk was very intriguing,’’ Stokes said. “I didn’t mind talking to him for hours.’’
Stokes has a collegiate career full of days left with Martin, be it two, three of four years, before the intrigue of the NBA comes into play.
Stokes said he’ll be pushing to play for the Vols this season, but that he didn’t base his decision on where he could play right away.
When, if, or how much Stokes plays this season is still to be determined.
“We’ll take it day by day,’’ Martin said.
Most signees have the benefit of two months of collegiate-level summer conditioning and 2 ½ months of practice with the team before they begin playing in games.
Stokes believes he can make a difference.
“I definitely think I’m a leader by example,’’ Stokes said Friday on the News Sentinel’s Sports Page radio show. “I think if I get in the gym a lot, and I show guys my faith in God, I think people will follow, and that’s what I plan on bringing to Knoxville.’’
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men’s basketball. You can follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32