March Madness

Jarnell Stokes No Longer Flying Under the Radar

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Jarnell Stokes may have been the most underrated player in college basketball this season, but he’s not flying under the radar anymore.

The junior power forward from Tennessee had his coming out party in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament, leading the Volunteers to victories over Iowa (18 points, 13 rebounds, 5-7 from the field, 8-11 from the free throw line) and Massachusetts (26 points, 14 rebounds, 7-11 from the field, 12-13 from the free throw line).

These performances were certainly impressive, but they’re actually pretty similar to what Stokes has been doing all season for Tennessee. The 20-year-old has been the Volunteers’ catalyst throughout this campaign, averaging 15.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and a block while shooting 53.4 percent from the field. He’s recorded 21 double-doubles, including 20 points and 11 rebounds against top-ranked Florida back in February. In recent days, Stokes has made headlines and received a lot of praise, which caught him off guard.

“I’m surprised with how much media attention I’ve gotten,” Stokes said with a laugh. “I mean, I had 20 and 15 against Kentucky and 20 and 11 against the best defense in the country in Florida, but now all of a sudden it’s like this. I enjoy it though! Coach always told me, ‘When you start winning games, the rest will take care of itself.’ I’m glad it’s finally paying off.”

Stokes and his teammates entered the tournament as a huge underdog, having to play in the First Four opening round. Even though the team finished 23-12 on the season, they felt that they were better than their 11-seed indicated.

“We had a chip [on our shoulder] since the day they announced us as an 11-seed,” Stokes said. “Joe Lunardi [of ESPN] had us as, I think, a 10-seed and then they announced us as an 11-seed, so that sort of put a chip on our shoulder. We’ve been playing great defense as of late and we’re playing well. … I definitely think we have a shot [to make a deep run].”

Tennessee will try to continue their incredible run this evening when they take on 14-seed Mercer.

“I know that Mercer is a really good team,” Stokes said. “We’re just trying to take it game by game. We just need to worry about Mercer right now.”

Looking past an opponent is never smart, just ask the Massachusetts Minutemen. Stokes admitted that prior to Tennessee’s game against 6-seed UMass, the Volunteers had some bulletin board material.

“I watched some of UMass’ interviews and read some articles, and they were so worried about playing Duke,” Stokes said. “And it’s crazy because now neither of those teams are going to the Sweet 16. We have to focus on Mercer and understand that they’re a very good team.”

Stokes could’ve left Tennessee after his sophomore season to enter the NBA draft, as he was being projected as a second-round pick. However, he decided to return to school. When asked if flying under the radar and seeing his name low on mock drafts this year motivated him, Stokes shrugs it off and makes it clear that the NBA isn’t on his mind.

“I think a lot of things are just media perception,” Stokes said. “I think when teams are able to see me in workouts, things will change. I think my measurements will be just fine, that I’ll measure well for a power forward. I think I can have success in the NBA. But I’m trying to win these ballgames and I’m not worrying about the NBA. If I started doing that, I may take, like, five jumpers just to prove that I can hit a jump shot (laughs). I’ve seen that from so many players, trying to do things they can’t do [or trying to showcase skills]. Sometimes it helps, more times it doesn’t. Hopefully I can show what I can do in workouts someday, whenever I decide to go, but I’m not focused on that right now.”

Things really started to click for Stokes in January, when he stopped picking up early fouls that limited his minutes and realized that he needed to dominate inside rather than play on the perimeter. At 6’9 and 260 pounds, there aren’t many college players who can contain him when he’s banging in the post, using his size and strength to his advantage. Stokes credits Volunteers head coach Cuonzo Martin as well as ESPN analyst (and former college coach) Jimmy Dykes for helping him shift his focus to imposing his will inside. He developed the mindset that nobody could stop him on the interior, his confidence soared, and he’s been producing ever since.

“I’m physically imposing in the college game, so I try to stick to my strengths,” Stokes said. “That’s something Coach kept talking to me about. That’s one of the problems that I had when I was younger, I wanted to be out on the perimeter and stuff like that. Coach really pushed me to impose my will inside and let the rest take care of itself. He also continued to push me to work hard and improve my game. … This is one of the reasons why I came back, why I didn’t force the issue with the NBA last year. I wanted to become a better all-around player.”

Stokes’ transformation has been remarkable. In the past, he talked about improving his perimeter skills and idolizing Carmelo Anthony. That’s who he modeled his game after, copying the New York Knicks star’s jump shot and isolation moves. Now, Stokes laughs when that’s brought up.

“I know I’m not going to be a three in the league now,” Stokes said with a chuckle. “I’m not going to be at that position at any point in my life. Now, I love watching David West, Carlos Boozer and old tapes of Karl Malone.

“I choose to impose my will inside because that’s my advantage. I don’t want to become a jump shooter unless I have to. I think my biggest strengths are my first step, my ability to shoot floaters and my high basketball IQ.”

This season, Stokes is much more comfortable being Tennessee’s focal point. Last season, double teams frustrated him and often took him out of games. This year, he says he loves double teams because it allows him to pick apart a defense.

“I get double teamed so much, and last year I really struggled with that,” Stokes said. “But this year, I really embrace double teams because I can make the right play and I have teammates around me who can make plays as well.”

Stokes is finally getting the recognition that he deserves since he has shined on college basketball’s biggest stage. If Tennessee continues to advance, Stokes will likely be a big reason why and his coming out party will rage on.