Early this spring, Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin offered the media a detailed breakdown of sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes’ game and how he could use his considerable physical gifts to improve.
As impressive as Stokes was in his abbreviated freshman season, he can be better. Martin knows it, and based on his performance for USA Basketball’s U18 team in the FIBA Americas championship in Brazil last week, Stokes knows it, too.
It was no fault of Stokes’ because he was thrown into the heart of the Southeastern Conference schedule having just turned 18 and without benefit of preseason conditioning and team practices, but at times the big man relied too much on his jump shot when, at 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds, he could have produced better results inside.
“When he’s down there, with that frame, he’s got to bury them,” Martin said during the spring. “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.”
In five games last week, Stokes learned all about the benefits of burying people. He averaged 14.0 points and 5.6 rebounds, both second on a USA team that won the gold medal. Stokes shot .689 from the field (31 of 45), and attempted only two 3-pointers, both of which he missed. Stokes did most of his damage inside, and it was impressive to watch, says Florida coach Billy Donovan, who doubled as the USA U18 coach.
"He's too good when he gets set up inside; he’s very difficult to handle," Donovan told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. "There was no one guy down there who could match up to him physically. He just overwhelmed other teams' frontcourts, even when he was up against guys who were taller with more length. He could remove them from plays with his strength."
It didn’t take Stokes too long to realize he had a huge advantage against his international peers.
“I used my strength to my advantage,” Stokes said. “My role was to help the team inside. It was almost like — after being in college and getting used to the strength and athleticism that you face in the SEC — going back to high school, playing against guys my age. At times, it was almost too easy (to score).”
Stokes’ performance in Brazil could well have been a look ahead to his sophomore season. Donovan is already calling him “one of the best frontcourt players in the country,” and thinks that improved conditioning will help Stokes beat defenses down the floor and give him time to get set up in the post. With his thick lower body and size 22 feet, Stokes is going to be hard to dislodge.
“I really just want to focus on being a beast and trying to dunk everything,” he said. “Last year, I didn’t try to dunk on people. I’m going to try and make more highlight plays.”
Though Stokes will play to his strengths, Martin’s system allows for versatility and some freedom. He’ll be allowed to operate from the high post as a passer, or by putting the ball on the floor and driving past his defender. And Stokes won’t forget about his solid jump shot that he’ll mix in to keep defenses off balance.
“He’s got a really consistent 15- to 17-foot shot,” Tennessee assistant coach Jon 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.”
“I’ll be able to make more face up jumpers this year,” Stokes said. “I’m really just going to take what the defense gives me. I definitely won’t settle (for jump shots). If there’s a guy smaller than me guarding me, I’m going to attack the rim.”
Stokes did that a lot last week. He was pleased with his individual effort, but happier to be a part of a team that played like a team.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “It felt good to represent your country, and to bring back the gold medal. We did that by playing great team ball, and if you look at our margin of victory (38.6 points per game), you could say the USA dominated.
“Coach Donovan was the right man for the job. He put us in the pick and roll system he uses at Florida. He called out any type of selfishness. And the other coaches (Gonzaga’s Mark Few and VCU’s Shaka Smart) were great, too. There were no egos or anything like that, from the coaches down to the players. There was just a lot of energy.”