KNOXVILLE — A few days ago during a 40-minute team practice, Tennessee sophomore Jarnell Stokes grabbed a defensive rebound and took off like a runaway dump truck toward the other end of the floor.
No, scratch that. The dump truck part of that analogy is OK—after all, the man is 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds—but to throw the word runaway in there might imply he was out of control.
Stokes knew exactly what he was doing.
“On his dribble move to the rim, a couple of guards moved in and tried to steal the ball,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said at the Vols’ media day on Thursday. “He just blew past them and went up and dunked it. He got up so high he just dropped it in. It was impressive.”
The recounting of that little exhibition of Stokes’ newfound quickness and explosiveness is not to suggest the big man is looking to beat Tennessee point guard Trae Golden out of a job. Quite the contrary, in fact. The same mobility Stokes showed during his ramble down the court will be put to good use in a much more concentrated area—the paint. And Stokes, who at times last season may have relied too much on his face-up game, is good with that.
“In high school, a lot of guys haven’t found themselves,” Stokes said, including himself in that group. “Being in college, even for only this long, I feel like I’ve found myself, and I’ve found where I can score the ball.
“I love to bully guys in the post. I can score the ball from the outside, I can drive the ball, but my strength is bullying guys in the post.”
Stokes was an apt pupil during the summer. He heard from every corner that with that body of his—“How can an 18-year-old be that big?” Golden said—he should be killing people in the low post. Martin asked him to dunk everything he got his hands on. Florida coach Billy Donovan, who coached Stokes on the USA team that won the gold medal in the FIBA Americas tournament in June, told the big man he needed to become the next Karl Malone, a “dominant player at that position.”
Stokes listened. But realizing what he needed to do and being able to consistently do it are two different things. He had to have help. That came from new strength coach Nicodemus Christopher, who, despite being hired just last June, has already made a profound impact on the Vols.
Stokes might just be exhibit A of Christopher’s handiwork.
“I took Jarnell all the way back to the basics,” Christopher said, “cleaning up his movement patterns. How mobile were his hips? How strong was his core? Once we got his movement patterns cleaned up, then we could build up his strength.
“He’s gotten a lot stronger. That boy is strong. And as big as he is, Jarnell moves extremely well. I’ve seen a big difference in him, and I think you’ll see that this season.”
Martin talks all the time about players learning and understanding their roles, about sticking with their strengths and recognizing their limitations. He thinks Stokes, as young as he is, has already figured out what he does best. Some players never figure that out.
“The true test of whether a guy knows his game, is when it’s all on the line, he’ll go where his bread is buttered,” Martin said. “Around the rim—that’s where Jarnell’s game is. He’s capable of making the 15- to 17-footer. You want him to shoot that shot with confidence. But he knows that, around that rim, posting up, that’s where his game is.”
Asked if he thought Stokes, who averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds in his abbreviated freshman season, could significantly increase those numbers as a sophomore, Martin was quick to answer in the affirmative. “He should average a double-double,” Martin said.
Told of that prediction, Stokes thanked his coach for the vote of confidence, and than concurred.
“Double-double?” Stokes said. “I feel like I can get a double-double on a bad night.”