It’s a tribute to how far Tennessee basketball has come in recent years that, even in the dead of summer, when the start of football season looms large in Southeastern Conference country, the Vols are on the radar of the national media.
Consider a recent Tweet by Fran Fraschilla, the former coach turned analyst extraordinaire for ESPN:
“Mark Few told me he was very impressed with Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes,” Fraschilla wrote. “He coached him on USA's U-18 Team this summer. Said he's a monster!”
Fraschilla, or anyone else, wouldn’t much care about the exploits of Stokes—who signed with the Vols last December and remains the Christmas gift that keeps on giving—unless there was a decent team around him. And Tennessee shows every sign of continuing on a path of competing for NCAA tournament bids as coach Cuonzo Martin is set to begin in earnest his second season. Hard to believe, but the start of practice is less than six weeks away.
It’s fair to say that, other than point guard Trae Golden, Stokes may be the most important player on Tennessee’s roster, given his considerable upside.
So it was interesting to see that tweet from Fraschilla, because two other coaches on the USA U18 staff that won the gold medal in the FIBA Americas Championship in Brazil recently told this writer the same thing about Stokes. Florida coach Billy Donovan served as the U18 team’s head coach, and VCU wunderkind Shaka Smart, along with Gonzaga’s Few, were his assistants.
All came away impressed with Stokes, who’s certainly going to turn up on some preseason All-SEC teams based on what he accomplished in just 17 games last season. His averages of 9.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots per game were enough to land him a spot on the All-SEC Freshman team in a year when the league was stocked with as many talented rookies as it’s seen in a decade. For proof of that, check out the first round of the June NBA Draft.
Of course, more will be expected of Stokes. And the USA U18 coaches think he can deliver.
“He’s really put himself in position to have a terrific sophomore year,” Smart said. “It was a really unique situation he had last season, literally going from being in high school to a week or two later playing in the arguably one of the top two or three conferences in the country. I was really impressed by that.
“I was also impressed with what he did for us. Coach Donovan is a truth teller. He tells people the truth, even if it’s not pretty. [Stokes] did a nice job of accepting that and being coachable. He set a nice precedent.”
“I told Jarnell, I’m not holding back any punches with you,” Donovan said. “I’d like to see you be a good player. I’m not recruiting you; you’re not playing for me. But the only thing I’m going to hit you with is the truth. And he was good.”
Donovan wanted two things out of Stokes. The first was leadership.
“One thing I tried to do, because he was the one guy that had previous college experience on our team, with a half season of college basketball under his belt, was reference him, use him,” Donovan said. “I told him he’s got to lead. And Jarnell was one of those guys; he had a good relationship with everyone on the team. He’s not a real vocal guy, but he can lead by example.”
Donovan also had another request for Stokes. And it was short and to the point.
“You’ve gotta be Karl Malone,” Donovan said. “He may be a little taller than Jarnell, but he was a dominant player at his position. And Jarnell can be dominant, even in the SEC, if he plays to his strengths.”
The U18 coaches talked about how, in Brazil, Stokes consistently buried opponents who tried to check him in the post. And Martin wants him to do the same thing in his sophomore season. Stokes will be given some leeway to expand his offensive game with face-up jump shots and putting the ball on the floor to get past slower post players. But he’ll be asked to use his size in the paint. And Martin doesn’t want layups or put-backs. “We want him to try and dunk everything,” Martin said.
Toward that end, one of the tasks Martin gave Stokes was to get in the best shape of his life. And Stokes obliged, working out on his own with new Tennessee strength coach Nicodemus Christopher, even beyond the Vols’ practices as they prepared for last month’s tour of Italy.
The result: Stokes is becoming that monster Fraschilla, Few, Smart and Donovan have talked about: 267 pounds, with eight percent body fat.
“Every day we were in Colorado Springs [preparing for the FIBA tournament], Jarnell would send me text messages saying he wanted to show up early and work out,” Donovan said. “And that’s the whole key for him [in the 2012-13 season]. What kind of condition he gets in. Because he’s got the talent.”
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