LEXINGTON, Ky. – Over 23,000 fans will remember Kentucky beating Tennessee by a final of 74-68 at Rupp Arena on Saturday in a back-and-forth contest.
But nine people in the building will remember Jarnell Stokes.
They were NBA scouts from nine franchises that were sitting courtside. No doubt they were primarily there to see Kentucky’s embarrassment of riches in terms of future NBA talent and perhaps to catch a glimpse of UT’s Jordan McRae as well.
And while they were likely impressed with what they saw from McRae (17 points) and players such as UK’s Andrew Harrison (26 points) and Julius Randle (18 points), there’s a good chance they left with a notebook full of comments on Stokes as well.
Playing against two of the top 20* prospects for the 2014 NBA draft in Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein, Stokes had a monster day. He hit 8 of 12 shots for 20 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in addition to dishing out a pair of assists. He hustled. He capitalized. He defended. He was tough to stop on both ends.
Randle made a dent in the scoring sheet, but the potential top-5 pick had just two rebounds. Cauley-Stein didn’t score a single point and recorded just three boards.
“Stokes outworked our big guys,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari.”He just outworked them. There was a free ball and he got them – almost every one.”
And if anybody knows a good big man, it’s Coach Cal. He’s coached Anthony Davis, Marcus Camby, DeMarcus Camby, Nerlens Noel and several other post players who have moved on to the next level.
“Whenever he plays aggressive he is a totally different basketball player,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin added. “I thought Jarnell did a great job of attacking the glass, being aggressive, being assertive, imposing hiswill, rebounding the basketball and defending.”
Stokes didn’t make Saturday about him. He downplayed his performance, saying it’s just how he expects to play and spoke of UT’s missed opportunity to pick up a huge win for a team battling for tournament consideration.
“I wasn’t getting into any hype of anything,” Stokes said. “Julius Randle is legit. This is how we’ve been playing all season, playing up and down, but we always make a run. We’ve been playing well all season, but this is kind of sad that we didn’t finish the game like we were supposed too.”
That’s the honorable thing to do.
But he had to be thinking of days like Saturday when he chose to come back to Tennessee after receiving an NBA draft evaluation following last season. Scouts said he had more work to do – more to prove.
And chances to play against multiple future NBA bigs in front of a whole table full of scouts don’t come too often. The Vols aren’t scheduled to play any forwards or centers ranked as a top 25 prospect this year outside of Kentucky’s duo.
This was Stokes’ chance. He made the most of it. He even did it in the face of what’s slowed him the most: length. The bulky 6-foot-8 forward can have his way against players of similar height, but long, lengthy 7-footers have stood in his way in the past.
But Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, both 7-footers, never completely had the answer for him on Saturday.
“I wanted to trust in my craft,” Stokes said. “Guys say I struggle with length, so I feel like guys with length struggle with size. That was my mindset coming into this game. I would rather be strong and mobile than long. I just wanted to answer those questions coming into this game.”
Stokes still has work to do. Depending on your NBA evaluator of choice, he’s listed as anything from a potential first-rounder to an undrafted free agent if he comes out after this season, which all indications point to him doing right now.
Consider his stock up after Saturday, however. There could be at least nine teams that might be a little more interested.
*Draft rankings were taken from NBADraft.net’s list of the top 100 players for the 2014 NBA draft.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga