More mature Jarnell Stokes returns to Thompson-Boling after playing U18 in Brazil
Tennessee fans first gazed upon Jarnell Stokes back in mid-January. A 6-foot-8 fire hydrant with size 20 shoes, he walked onto the Thompson-Boling Arena floor for an affair with then-No. 2 Kentucky.
Stokes was supposed to be on winter break at his high school in Memphis at the time. Instead, more than 20,000 fans were nudging one another, saying, "Look at the shoulders on that kid."
The debut didn't disappoint. Stokes, a midyear enrollee at UT, scored nine points and pulled nine rebounds over 17 minutes in a narrow loss.
Media swarmed afterward. Wide-eyed and soft-spoken, Stokes said, "A scared man is a dead man. ... It felt different, the atmosphere, the crowd. That was something I wasn't used to."
A little less than six months later, Stokes is still hushed and humble. Everything else, though, is different.
Thrown to the wolves blindfolded, Stokes wrestled through his first 17 college games at UT. He averaged 9.0 points and 7.7 rebounds with a couple double-doubles. At times he was star. Other times he was pedestrian.
At all times, he was a SEC power forward that should have still been in high school. That was never easy to remember, but this spring, Stokes got a reminder.
"You leave the SEC and come back to playing with your age group — it's crazy how much easier it gets and how much smaller the other guys are," Stokes said Monday, donning a USA basketball shirt compliments of his gold-medal trip to Brazil for the FIBA Americas U18 championship a little over two weeks ago.
Wiser, smarter and stronger, Stokes played alongside and against high school seniors and juniors in Brazil. He said Monday a semester under UT coach Cuonzo Martin made it glaringly clear that he's taken a long stride past his counterparts.
"Banging with guys like (former 6-11, 255-pound Vanderbilt center) Festus Ezeli and then banging with guys that are my age, you can definitely tell the difference," Stokes said.
With that realization comes an up-kick in confidence. Stokes said when he arrived at UT last winter he wanted to "take jump shots and be real pretty" and "fit in and (not) mess anything up."
No one wants a passive 6-8, 250-pound power forward. Stokes said that's a thing of the past. Billy Donovan, the Florida coach who steered the U.S. team in Brazil, echoed the sentiment after winning gold.
"There was no one guy down there who could match up to him physically," Donovan said. "He just overwhelmed other teams' frontcourts."
As for Stokes' comparative maturation among his teammates, Donovan noted, "There was a better understanding of everything."
At the U.S. team's training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., Stokes played the role of a student-teacher. Instead of participating in drills, he taught the nuances of flat screens and traps.
"I knew all the schemes and I knew basically everything (Donovan) was throwing at the guys," Stokes said. "He really had me teaching it to guys on the sidelines."
When the lights were on in Brazil, Stokes averaged 14.0 points, 5.6 rebounds and shot 68.9 percent in 20.2 minutes per game
After Stokes met with the media Monday, Martin remembered back to when the acclaimed high school star arrived at midseason. Most players are given a summer to dip their toes in college waters. Stokes was given a uniform and pushed in the pool.
"This guy was right in the trenches at the college level and he's one of the most talked about guys in the history of the program," Martin said. "Remember he had all those things going on. That's not an easy thing to do, but he did a great job of it."
And now it's behind him.
Stokes sported a wry smile when he said, "I have the power to go for 20 points and 20 rebounds and I have the power to ask for the ball when I have a weaker defender on me. Last year I didn't really have the relationship with my teammates to do that."
That doesn't sound like a scared man.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn