Some college basketball coaches don’t want their players taking part in international competition during the summer, reasoning that they would rather be coaching them than entrusting the task to someone else.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin isn’t among them.
Martin was in Chattanooga on Monday night to conduct the first of a series of youth clinics he’s taking across the state. Along for the ride were several of Martin’s assistants and five players, including two part-time starters from 2011-12, Skylar McBee and Kenny Hall. But the hot topic of conversation was about a player who wasn’t there — Jarnell Stokes.
The sophomore big man had spent last week at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. competing to earn a spot on the USA Basketball Men’s U18 National team that will play in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Brazil this week. Early Sunday morning, word came down that Stokes had made the 12-man team.
Martin, who spent part of last summer as an assistant coach on USA Basketball’s World University Games team, was thrilled.
“I’m happy for him,” Martin said. “It’s a great honor to play with USA Basketball, and he’ll have fun doing it.”
“Some coaches talk about summer play and whether or not they really want their kids to be involved,” said Houston Fancher, Martin’s director of basketball operations. “When coach Martin heard about this opportunity for Jarnell, he practically rushed him out the door and told him this was something he needed to be involved in.
“It’s a great opportunity for Jarnell, a great opportunity to represent our program, and a great opportunity to represent our country. There’s no greater honor than that. Coach really encouraged Jarnell to get involved.”
It wasn’t a given that Stokes would make the team, coached by Florida coach Billy Donovan, with help from Gonzaga coach Mark Few and VCU coach Shaka Smart. But Stokes had some things in his favor.
One was the fact he was the only player on the team that had already played college basketball.
Two, Donovan was already well aware of what Stokes can do, even though the big man played against Florida just once in 2012.
And three, there was some Volunteer magic at work. Chattanooga State coach Jay Price, a former Tennessee player, was chosen as one of four floor coaches that put the U18 team candidates through their paces. And Stokes was assigned to Price’s team.
“I didn’t even tell him that I had played at Tennessee,” Price said. “So we go through the first day, and after it was over, he said to me, ‘Hey, some of the guys were saying you played at Tennessee, they read your bio.’ I said yeah, but that I didn’t want him to think anything different about me and coaching him in this process. He just said it was awesome, and he wanted to get a picture to put on Twitter.”
Price didn’t have to worry about Big Orange bias playing a part. Stokes earned his way onto the team.
“He stood out,” Price said. “Jarnell and (Oklahoma State signee) Marcus Smart were probably the two kids that were shoo-ins. From day one, they were the two kids who stood out.”
Price thinks Stokes will get a great opportunity in Brazil to showcase his skills within the framework of a solid team.
“They’re gonna spread the floor — kind of like Florida runs their offense — pick and pop, let Jarnell hit some jump shots,” Price said. “They’re gonna let him be a muscle guy down low, and he can run the floor. I really think he’s going to fit in well with the group of guys they have and get a chance to show he’s more than just a guy down low.
“He can step out. He can pick and pop. He can run the floor in transition and show a little bit more of his athletic ability.”
After an initial cut to reduce the field of candidates from 23 to 14, the four floor coaches, Price, Dannton Jackson (Xavier-La.), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and John Thompson (North Carolina Wesleyan) were asked to give their evaluations.
Price had no problem giving Stokes high marks.
“One thing they wanted to know what kind of kid he is,” Price said. “They wanted to know was he coachable and does he work hard. We had some situations were we had to run plays late in the game. They wanted to know how did he respond. Did he listen in the huddle? They wanted to take a group of guys that were coachable, because they’ve only got five practices before they go to Brazil.
“They wanted guys who, when it’s all said and done, were gonna lay it on the line. From those few days, I knew what Jarnell could do. He’s going to lay it on the line, work hard on every possession and do everything they ask him to do. That’s all you want. That’s all you can ask.”