KNOXVILLE — At the Southeastern Conference tournament last month, former LSU basketball coach Trent Johnson was asked for a quick assessment of Tennessee.
Johnson started out with the usual platitudes about the Vols and how they had improved under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin before pausing and dropping a bit tastier morsel the media could use.
“And then,” Johnson said. “And then they got Wes Unseld, Jr. eligible. Which is (Jarnell) Stokes.”
Johnson was well qualified to compare Stokes to the former Washington Bullets’ great. Just a few days earlier, in a game in Baton Rouge, Stokes dropped 18 points and pulled down seven rebounds on the Tigers. He made nine of the 10 shots he attempted.
Tennessee won, keeping alive its chances for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Vols ultimately had to settle for the NIT, but Stokes’ game at LSU bodes well for the future. Johnson knew it, and Martin knew it. Stokes, who had played so remarkably after joining the team in early January, had offered a compelling preview of things to come when he isn’t deferring to older, more experienced teammates.
“(Stokes’ play as a freshman) really helped him from a confidence standpoint,” Tennessee assistant coach Jon Harris recently told Nooga.com. “For him to be able to do the things he was doing, that was a big benefit to our team, but also to him. He’s a guy with a high work ethic, and for him to see the results of his hard work paying off like it did, it was huge for him.”
Since the season ended with a homecourt loss to Middle Tennessee in the second round of the NIT, Tennessee coaches have worked with Stokes individually and seen what he can do for an encore.
“I think it’s a combination of being better on the low block, as far as his back to the basket, and an improved face-up game,” Martin said. “During the season, he was more of a face-up guy than a back-to-the-basket guy. Now, he’s got both.”
Stokes probably won’t take the court next season with the 270 pounds he carried around as a freshman. Not that he looked slow or plodding. But as Stokes refines his body, he’ll add quickness, which will help him defensively and also when he faces up an opponent at the top of the key and drives.
Make no mistake, though, Martin wants Stokes to use his physical gifts—huge feet, tree trunk legs, a bulky backside—to devour opponents in the paint.
“When he’s down there, with that frame, he’s got to bury them,” Martin said. “If you’re on the perimeter, be on the perimeter. That’s fine. But sometimes, you’ve got to get them deep. The double team is harder to bring when you get them deep.”
From there, Stokes should be able to do some damage after focusing on his low-post scoring skills this spring.
“He’s got a little bit of everything,” Martin said. “Up and under. Left-hand jump hook. Right-hand jump hook. He’s a very skilled player.”
Stokes will also be given the freedom to take jump shots.
“He’s got a really consistent 15- to 17-foot shot,” Harris said. “We’ll work him out to the 3-point line. And he’ll work on handling the ball and attacking the basket. We feel he can really grow in those areas.”
Martin has no problem with Stokes occasionally hoisting it from deep.
“Not at all—as long as he continues to work on it,” Martin said. “But he has good form already. He puts a good stroke on it.”
Martin would like Stokes to carry that form over to the free-throw line, where the big man shot 57 percent (37 of 65), as a freshman. Stokes figures to attempt far more free-throw attempts as a sophomore, and must cash in more often.
If he can do that, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Stokes average a double-double in his second season.
Stokes will soon be able to hone his newfound skills against major competition. In June, he’ll try out for the United States U18 team that will compete in the 2012 FIB Americas U18 Championship in Brazil June 16-20.
Stokes will have a few advantages in the tryouts. First, he’s going to be the only player with collegiate experience behind him. The rest will be fresh out of high school. Second, the U-18 team is coached by Florida’s Billy Donovan, who already knows what Stokes can do.
“His skills and his understanding of the game will be enhanced from this experience because of the level of competition and the coaching he'll receive,” Martin said.
That comment begs the question: If Stokes was already being compared to Wes Unseld, how much higher is his ceiling?