Freshman power forward Jarnell Stokes cleared the second of three hurdles in his quest to play for Tennessee’s basketball team on Monday when the Southeastern Conference approved his eligibility.
The SEC’s decision followed an earlier approval by the NCAA. Now all Stokes has to do to get on the floor is convince coach Cuonzo Martin he’s ready.
“It’s a matter of when he’s physically ready to play,” Martin said. “He is so far removed from playing five on five (and) being physical, running, jumping, so when we feel he is ready to play, we will make that decision.”
Martin’s comments were made during the SEC coaches’ teleconference on Monday morning. Monday evening, well after Stokes’ first practice was behind him, Martin was asked whether Stokes had held his own.
“Yes,” Martin said. “He’s hungry.”
There’s no question the 6-foot-8 Stokes has some tools that can help the Vols. For starters, he has a presence — at 270 pounds, he’s bigger than Tennessee junior Jeronne Maymon, no lightweight himself at around 260. Stokes is a power player with an assortment of post moves, but he has face-up skills, too.
Besides getting himself back into game shape, Stokes will also have to learn Martin’s system and get used to playing with new teammates. And he won’t have a chance to gradually adjust against UNC Greensboro or The Citadel. The Vols are in the middle of a brutal stretch of games that will match them against four ranked teams — Mississippi State, Kentucky, Connecticut and Vanderbilt — in the next two weeks.
“It really is one day at a time,” Martin said. “We will try and simplify things for him. The most important thing for him is to demand the basketball and play as hard as he can play, but we will never put him in situations where he is not successful.”
Stokes’ impact could be felt as much off the floor as on it. A consensus top 20, five-star recruit — PrepStar.com (No. 11), Rivals.com (No. 11), Scout.com (No. 11), CBSsports.com (No. 16) and ESPNU (No. 18) — Stokes helped Martin prove that he could land top talent and also break through into Memphis, the fertile recruiting ground that even former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, for all his success, couldn’t penetrate.
The last top 100 player from Memphis to sign with Tennessee was Tony Harris (1997). The last Memphis player, period, to become a Vol was Dane Bradshaw (2002).
Word among recruiting analysts is that other talented players from West Tennessee and beyond might have an interest playing with Stokes, who decided to graduate early from Memphis Southwind High School because the TSSAA wouldn’t approve his eligibility after he transferred from Memphis East over the summer.
Stokes isn’t the only newcomer joining the Vols this week. Cory Stanton, a 5-11 sophomore who played last season at Clemson but then transferred to Lipscomb, is on the move again after deciding to walk on with the Vols.
Stanton, from Springfield (Tenn.) High School, has a history with Martin, who recruited him at Missouri State. Stanton eventually signed with Wright State, but he followed coach Brad Brownell to Clemson. A year ago, Stanton played in 33 games and averaged 10.7 minutes and 2.4 points. He struggled shooting (.34.5 percent from the field, 21.1 percent from 3-point range), but Stanton had his moments, including a nine-point, four-steal game against Michigan and a seven-point effort at North Carolina.
Stanton lasted all of one semester at Lipscomb and thought enough of Martin to show up at Tennessee without a scholarship. He’s expected to compete for backup minutes at the point next year after sitting out as a redshirt in 2011-12.