KNOXVILLE — The question of whether Jarnell Stokes was ready to play college basketball was settled 31 seconds into his career.
A month or so removed from attending high school classes, a week after turning 18 and with just four practices behind him, Stokes, the 6-foot-8, 270-pound freshman from Memphis, made his debut for Tennessee on Saturday. Eleven minutes and 18 seconds remained in the first half of the Vols’ home game against No. 2 Kentucky when coach Cuonzo Martin called for the big man. His mission was simple.
“I just told him, if there’s one guy, shoot the ball,” Martin said. “If there’s two guys, a double team, pass the ball. If it’s one-on-one, make plays.”
Parked on the left block, Stokes received a pass and realized he had the green light — only Kentucky senior Eloy Vargas was guarding him. Sizing up his 6-11, 244-pound opponent, Stokes took a couple of hard dribbles into the lane and let fly with a soft jump hook.
Stokes is nothing if not confident in his ability, but when that shot found the bottom of the net, it was as though a weight had been lifted off him.
“It gave me confidence when that shot went in,” Stokes said. “Going in to this game, I was a little worried how I would do coming out of high school. But once that shot went in, I felt pretty good.”
Tennessee fans, of course, went bonkers. Stokes’ basket put the Vols ahead, 19-11.
Stokes’ next shot must have felt pretty good, too. At the left foul line extended, Stokes ball-faked Kentucky's Terrence Jones and let fly with a 15-foot jumper that also went down. Tennessee 21, Kentucky 13.
Three minutes after he entered his first college game, Stokes was back on the bench. But his impact had been made.
The prevailing opinion that it might take Stokes, without benefit of offseason conditioning and preseason practice, a couple of weeks or even a month to get acclimated to the college game was clearly misguided. Stokes logged nine minutes in the first half of college hoops he ever played, scored six points on 3-of-3 shooting and grabbed three rebounds.
“He wasn’t intimidated at all,” Martin said. “It was fun to see him out there. It’s tough against that level of talent to be able to pick things up so quickly, the different schemes and not a lot of time to prepare. I thought he did a tremendous job.”
Stokes made another basket and a free throw in the second half and finished with nine points and four boards. Even his intimidating presence wasn’t enough to stave off a Kentucky comeback and an eventual, 65-62, win. But it was obvious: Stokes is going to give Martin another weapon he can use as the Vols (8-9, 1-2 SEC) seek to salvage a season that a month ago seemed destined for disappointment.
Much has changed in those four weeks. Stokes’ arrival was huge, but once Southeastern Conference play began a week ago, the Vols have seemed to buy in to Martin’s system and recognized that defense and toughness are going to be their calling cards.
Without that realization, Stokes’ presence might have been wasted on a team that was going nowhere. But ask No. 19 Florida, No. 20 Mississippi State and No. 2 Kentucky, the Vols’ last three opponents, whether Tennessee has become one of those pain-in-the-backside teams no one wants to play. The answer would probably be a resounding yes.
“I am so impressed with what coach Martin has done,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “If you want to win championships, you’ve got to be able to guard in the half court, you’ve got to be physical and you’ve got to have toughness. I don’t really care what their record is; (Tennessee) is an NCAA Tournament team. Just win games now. Win the games you’re supposed to win.
“Jarnell Stokes makes them way better too.”
Stokes’ new teammates didn’t seem at all surprised by how poised and prepared Stokes was, at least on the offensive end. But then again, maybe they were. When junior forward Jeronne Maymon saw Stokes’ drain that jump hook, he smiled and shook his head.
“I haven’t seen him do anything like that in practice,” Maymon said. “I just said, let’s go. Let’s get it on.”
Stokes had been ready to get it on since he was allowed to start practicing with the Vols on Jan. 11. Though Martin insisted he was going to bring the big man along slowly, it became apparent in the last couple of days that Stokes had to play.
“He has a presence about himself,” Tennessee guard Cameron Tatum said. “He is real calm and just goes out there and plays the game. He lets it come to him. He is a big, physical presence and he knows the game well. You can tell from practice he is very cerebral. He came out there and gave us a spark.”
Stokes’ debut wasn’t perfect. He made three turnovers and some defensive miscues. But you get the feeling that by time the Vols play at Georgia on Jan. 18, Stokes will have made the necessary adjustments.
“I’ve got a lot of things I need to work on defensively,” Stokes said. “I didn’t know the terminology was (so different than high school). As far as switching ball screens and hedging out, I had no idea. But I’m going to watch film and talk to the coaches and build off this.”