By: Chris Dortch
SEC Digital Network
The photo, posted by Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes earlier this week on his Instagram feed, speaks volumes.
It’s a shot, from the Vols’ game at South Carolina on Sunday, of Stokes and Gamecock freshman Michael Carrera battling for a loose ball. Or rather, Carrera is holding on for dear life, because in the process of trying to wrest the ball away from his opponent, Stokes has lifted the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Carrera nearly two feet off the ground.
“I guess he really wanted the ball,” Stokes said, laughing. “He wouldn’t let go.”
True, the picture is a perfect illustration of Carrera’s tenacity, but it’s a better illustration of the raw power of the 6-8, 270-pound Stokes.
For the last year, Tennessee’s coaching staff, opposing coaches, media, NBA scouts, anyone with a modicum of basketball knowledge, knew that if Stokes’ strength and motor could consistently coexist at the same time, he could become a force.
That consistent coexistence has arrived, and not surprisingly, Stokes is in the midst of a streak unseen at Tennessee since, well, sports information director Tom Satkowiak and his staff are still trying to find out as they pour through the program’s record books. They might be venturing into Bernard King territory.
Stokes’ 17-point, 10-rebound performance at Vanderbilt on Wednesday night was his sixth straight double-double and 10th of the season, tops in the Southeastern Conference. Not since 7-footer Steve Hamer in 1994-95 has a Tennessee player racked up 10 double-doubles.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has become something of an expert on Stokes, who also torched the Commodores for 19 points and 11 boards in a late-January game in Knoxville.
“He’s playing like a first-round [NBA] draft pick right now,” Stallings said. “An absolute stud. He’s really turning into a great college player. I’m not sure how to defend him. He hurts you when you send double teams at him. He destroys you when you play him one on one. Maybe you need to send three. I’m not sure. He’s playing at a very high level.”
That wasn’t the case before Southeastern Conference games began.
Based on Stokes’ play during his abbreviated freshman season—during which, after joining the team in early January 2012 and having just turned 18, he averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds and earned a spot on the SEC’s all-freshman team—many predicted greatness. A couple of pundits even tabbed Stokes as the league’s preseason player of the year.
For the first two months, those accolades were just a bit off target. Until the calendar turned over to 2013, Stokes wasn’t even the best player on his own team. Against the best non-conference teams on Tennessee’s schedule—Oklahoma State, Georgetown, Virginia, Wichita State, Xavier and Memphis—Stokes averaged 6.5 points and 6.8 rebounds, hardly SEC player-of-the-year numbers.
There were numerous reasons for Stokes’ slow start.
The first was the absence of 6-7, 265-pound senior Jeronne Maymon, a player capable of going for 30 points or 20 rebounds on a given night and who protected Stokes by preventing double- and even triple-teaming. Maymon underwent offseason knee surgery, and when the knee was slow to respond, he was forced to redshirt.
Imagine a quarterback who loses his all-conference left tackle to an injury. That’s the way Stokes must have felt at times as defenses swarmed him and made his life miserable.
“Jeronne took all the pressure off him,” Tennessee assistant coach Kent Williams said. “Now all of a sudden the pressure’s all on Jarnell’s shoulders. People are sagging down on him. And it’s no secret we haven’t shot the ball well from 3 this season; more reason to sag down on him.”
There were other issues. A year ago, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin kept things simple with Stokes, who, only a couple of weeks removed from high school, was thrown into the middle of the SEC season. That Stokes was able to contribute as much as he did was remarkable. But when more of the system was introduced to him this season, it took a while to learn and adjust.
Stokes’ biggest problem was self-inflicted. Playing hard all the time, which Martin demands and expects, wasn’t in the big man’s nature.
“I definitely didn’t play hard all the time in high school,” Stokes said. “I’d take plays off. Sometimes, I’d take games off. When I worked out, I didn’t give 100 percent all the time. But through the training and all the tools I’ve picked up at Tennessee, I’ve learned how to play hard.”
Stokes also had to face facts about what type of gifts he has at his disposal. It was a given that, with a father who stands 6-6 and a mother who is 6-1, Stokes would be tall. But he’s also thick, with tree-trunk calves, guns that would make the Sons of Anarchy envious and a massive core. There’s not a lot of fat on the 270 pounds he carries, which makes him more road grader than racecar.
“I’d always been a finesse player and didn’t really use my strength,” Stokes said. “Coming into college, I don’t think I knew what I was. But I’m learning as I get older that I have this body, I need to use it.”
And use it he has. Martin and his coaches had been begging Stokes to find other ways to score when he was double covered, or worse, when teammates overlooked him. In December, Stokes was frustrated enough to suggest in the media he wasn’t getting the ball enough.
Martin’s advice to Stokes was simple: If you don’t think you’re getting the ball enough, go get it yourself. Offensive rebounding is the best way to do that, and during his double-double streak, Stokes has been a monster on the offensive glass. He grabbed eight (among 18 total boards) against Alabama, seven against Vanderbilt in Knoxville and five against South Carolina.
One of those offensive boards against the Gamecocks was the key to the Vols’ pulling out their first road win of the season. After Tennessee guard Trae Golden missed a 3-point attempt, Stokes fought off three South Carolina players to grab the rebound. He passed the ball to Josh Richardson, who swung it around to Skylar McBee, who buried a 3-pointer to pad a one-point lead to four.
“That’s why they won,” South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said. “Stokes went against three guys.”
Stokes and Missouri senior Alex Oriakhi lead the SEC in offensive rebounding at 3.5 per game.
“He’s being very aggressive,” Martin said. “He’s attacking. As coaches, you teach things, and it’s a matter of when guys decide to pick them up, or if they’ll pick them up. As a player, you do what you think makes you play better. In Jarnell’s case, it was a matter of seeing some improvement, getting out of his comfort zone, and becoming more aggressive.”
Stokes doesn’t have the luxury of being passive. He’s now the No. 1 focus on every opposing team’s scouting report.
“Every game, it’s a different double team,” Stokes said. “They all come up with different ways. But I’m a willing passer. I trust my teammates to make plays. And when my teammates are making plays, I don’t think they can double-team me. I’m going to pass the ball.”
Stokes is adding to his arsenal every day. If he’s prevented from posting up by a long-armed defender, he’ll move to the free-throw line extended and try to score off the dribble. Against Vanderbilt in Nashville, he faced up and made shots. He’s passed for no fewer than two assists in each of his last five games. And in his last two games, he’s blocked nine shots.
“Jarnell has really emerged as the guy,” Martin said. “Our players understand that and have embraced it. Jarnell’s our lead guy, so the offense runs through him. And he’s learned that, if he doesn’t get the ball, he goes and rebounds it.”
Suffice it to say that the second two months of the season have been more fun for Stokes than the first two.
“When you have bad games, you get all these calls from friends and family, you see it on social media,” Stokes said. “All of a sudden, you can’t play. That takes a toll on you. I knew what I could do, but I just didn’t understand why I wasn’t producing.
“In a way, playing bad for a while was a blessing. People told me all the time to get my motor going. I’m starting to give better effort. No more taking plays off.”