Jarnell Stokes had just walked off of the court after a free-agent workout in front of about 20 NBA teams and was immediately swarmed. He was greeted by friends, trainers and other players who just watched him go through a number of different drills. Those watching his pro-day performance were left in disbelief that such a talented 22-year-old still isn’t on an NBA roster.
Since being drafted with the No. 35 pick in the second-round of the 2014 NBA Draft, Stokes’ professional career has been a roller coaster. The Utah Jazz traded Stokes on draft night to his hometown Memphis Grizzlies. The thought of playing for the team he watched growing up was so surreal that falling out of the first round didn’t even matter that much.
But playing time for Stokes with the Grizzlies was spotty at best. After all, he was on the depth chart behind some established big men like Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Kosta Koufos and Jeff Green. Stokes would appear in just 19 games for the Grizzlies as a rookie and spent the majority of that year in the D-League with the Iowa Energy.
Stokes was traded at the beginning of this season to the Miami HEAT in exchange for Mario Chalmers and James Ennis. He spent the majority of his time with the HEAT, playing for their D-League affiliate in Sioux Falls. He was acquired by the New Orleans Pelicans at the trade deadline in a salary dump by the HEAT, and was waived shortly after. He’s just two years into his NBA career, but he has already seen how the business side of the league can play itself out.
“I realized that the NBA is very honest,” Stokes told Basketball Insiders. “They believe what they see. It is a business because you have a team like Miami, who was very interested in me and they really liked me. I felt like I could bring some things to the Miami HEAT roster this year that I wasn’t able to showcase and I didn’t really get the opportunity.
“[I was traded and then] cut at the trade deadline. They traded [Chris Andersen] and traded another guy and got Joe Johnson; just right then and there you see the business. I have to wake up, 23 years old, and I’m looking at no offers and I have to go play in the D-League. I had offers overseas and things like that, but I was looking at a very good D-League run and that’s where [I had] to grow up because my game really had to mature to get back to this level and you see my perseverance showcased.”
It could have been very easy for Stokes to be down on himself and lose focus of his dream to be a significant contributor in the NBA. Instead, Stokes used his time in the D-League to improve his game and become a better player. In two seasons since being drafted, Stokes has appeared in 42 games in the D-League and, by all accounts, has dominated the competition.
Stokes made headlines in the D-League this past season, winning the 2015-16 D-League Most Valuable Player award. In 28 games for the Sioux Falls Skyforce, Stokes averaged 20.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game. In addition to being named the season’s MVP, he was also named to the All D-League First Team and was the D-League Finals’ MVP after leading the Skyforce to the 2015-16 D-League championship.
Watching Stokes play, it was clear that he was one of the best players in the D-League (if not the best). He recorded his best game of the regular season on March 13 against the Austin Spurs, contributing 29 points and 12 rebounds. Players often talk about how the D-League can help improve their skill set and allow them to reach the next level in their development. In the D-League, Stokes was able to work on a number of different things to be even more prepared.
“It was a very, very humbling experience because I had to change my game in numerous ways,” Stokes said. “Teams double-teamed me [and then] teams went away from doubling me. I changed my game rebounding at one point and then I would change my game knocking down jumpers. I changed my game just being a play-maker out of pick-and-roll situations. Things like that were things that I wouldn’t do while I was at Memphis and things that I wasn’t able to do when I got to Miami. I was able to translate that from watching film.”
Many executives were impressed with Stokes after watching his workout yesterday at the Relativity Sports Pro Day at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. Between his MVP season in the D-League and his great showing during workouts, Stokes has put his best basketball in front of teams. This, of course, leads to one of the most asked questions regarding Stokes: “Why isn’t he in the NBA?”
Stokes’ case is the perfect example of a player who hasn’t been able to land in the right situation. The Grizzlies were filled with seasoned veterans and the team was competing for a championship, so they didn’t have a lot of minutes for a player in his rookie season. The HEAT viewed themselves as a team that was one key player away from making a serious run in the playoffs, and needed a roster spot to sign Joe Johnson.
Landing in the right situation for Stokes will be key to sticking in the NBA. His next step will be participating in the Summer League next month and earning his way onto a roster. We’ve seen over the years how the Summer League can be a great starting point for a player to land with a team. Stokes still has much to improve upon, but it’s clear that he’s not giving up on his dream.
Stokes is an NBA player; he just hasn’t found the perfect team yet.
“I’m ready to take the next step. I’m not going to shy away from saying that I feel like I’m an NBA-ready guy and I’m going to get on the floor with the physical mindset that I have,” Stokes said. “I’m a rebounder at heart and that will be one of the things that I’ll be really looking forward to showcasing in the Summer League.”
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