KNOXVILLE – It wasn’t that long ago that we were asking if Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes was in the midst of a sophomore slump.
It was a fair question as the calendar rolled over into 2013.
His stats were showing (at best) marginal improvement over his 2012 freshman campaign when he joined the Vols in January after graduating Southwind (Tenn.) High School a semester early.
He was regularly in foul trouble. He disappeared in key stretches of game. The double team bothered him. In short, he wasn’t taking over games the way many thought the 6-8, 270-pound bruiser was capable of doing.
"I definitely think one of the things I didn't do earlier in the year was get my motor up,” Stokes said after a dominant 20-point, 10-rebound effort against South Carolina on Sunday. “Offensively, if I was scoring or if I wasn't scoring, I still wasn't rebounding at the level I should. I'm glad it's all finally clicked."
After his performance in UT’s 66-61 win over South Carolina, his game has, indeed, clicked in all areas, culminating with Stokes being named SEC player of the week on Monday for his performance the prior week.
He's finding his sophomore stride.
“He’s playing really well,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He continues to compete and work hard. He gets rebounds out of his area. Late in the game [at South Carolina] he got a big rebound with three guys around him. Thought he got a lot of stature rebounds, keeping balls alive, staying active.”
It started with the Memphis native finding a rhythm inside Thompson-Boling Arena. He hasn’t scored less than 11 points at home in 2013. That production didn’t translate to the road until recently, though.
Through the first three road games of 2013 – at Alabama, Kentucky and Ole Miss – Stokes averaged just 5.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest. In contrast, he averaged 14.7 points per game and 10.3 rebounds per game in the first three home games of the calendar year (Memphis, Ole Miss, Mississippi State).
He’s now averaged 19 points per game and 10 rebounds per outing in his last two road games as part of a five-game overall double-double streak.
“Offensively, he’s going to get rebounds – that’s something he didn’t do last year, something he didn’t do much early this season," Martin said. “He’s doing that part. Also, he’s improved his ability to score with his back to basket.”
Added Stokes: "I'm just trying to keep my motor going. I’m trying to get every rebound on every play. It's one of those things where I just don't want to take any plays off. That's something I think I've done in the past."
His recent revival sparks the question that many wondered after his impressive freshman season: How long will he stick around Knoxville before testing the professional waters?
He’ll likely want to put at least one full impressive collegiate season on film before making that jump. And though most NBA mock drafts omit him at this point, he is trending upward.
“It seems as things have begun to click for Stokes who has had to pick up the slack down low due to the loss of Jeronne Maymon,” wrote Clayton Crowe of NBADraft.net, who recently listed Stokes in the “who’s hot” category of the SEC.
“Stokes has a wide body and uses his size to his advantage when he gets opposing players on his hip. His post moves have improved from a season ago and he has become a more efficient scorer from the block.”
With the Vols set to travel to Vanderbilt on Wednesday, Stokes will have perhaps his best opportunity to showcase his improvement this year. He had one of his toughest games as a freshman at Memorial Gym last season on Jan. 24, 2012. He scored just six points while turning it over seven times in a hostile environment.
“He's a young guy and a physical presence around the rim,” Martin said of Stokes after a 65-47 loss at Vandy last year. “They made him work for everything and he had seven turnovers. I think it is a good thing for him to go through. It's a good lesson for him.”
He’ll have a chance to show how far he’s come since that day on Wednesday.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga