Jarnell Stokes gets post position at Vanderbilt (Photo: Jeff Newman Photography)

KNOXVILLE – Tennessee junior forward Jarnell Stokes will forego his senior season at Tennessee and enter the 2014 NBA Draft.

Stokes announced his decision to the media on Friday afternoon after informing coach Cuonzo Martin of his intentions on Tuesday.

“I felt like it wasn’t a tough decision for me,” Stokes said. “I enjoyed being here so much, but it’s really hard to turn down something you’ve chased all your life. It’s hard to turn that down, definitely [after] we made the tournament run.

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Jarnell Stokes battles inside against South Carolina in the SEC tournament. (Photo: Reed Carringer)

“I feel like I can produce on a team in the NBA. I really do. I’ve heard other important people say the same thing. That really factored into my decision. My sophomore year, like I said, I’m so glad I came back because I’ve been able to grow as a man here too.”

Stokes, originally a five-star recruit out of Memphis, Tenn., passed up an opportunity to turn pro after his sophomore season. That appears to have been a good decision. He earned First-Team All-SEC honors this season and ranked second among all Division I players in double-doubles with 22.

He was at his best as the Vols marched through the NCAA tournament, averaging 18.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists in UT’s four tournament games.

“First of all, I think Jarnell is going to go down as one of the best big men to ever play at Tennessee – certainly one of the most dominant rebounders ever to wear the orange,” Tennesse head coach Cuonzo Martin said in a news release. “I hope our fans will celebrate his career, because the growth and development he’s shown over thepast three years has really been impressive, and I’m proud of the player and man he’s become.”

Stokes established himself as one of the top rebounders in the nation over the past three years. He leaves UT as the best offensive rebounder in schools history with an average of 3.87 per game. His 836 total boards is the eighth most in school history. That’s made even more impressive when considering that he only played two and a half seasons in Knoxville after enrolling in December of 2012 and now leaving before his final year.

But Stokes thinks there’s more to his game that he’ll be able to show NBA scouts leading up to the June 26 draft. He fulfilled more of a traditional center role in college, but feels that at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, he’s a better fit at power forward in the NBA.

Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes pulls down a rebound. (Photo: Reed Carringer)

“I definitely had to be a dominant presence in the paint for the University of Tennessee in order for us to succeed,” he said. “I sacrificed some things for the team. Felt like I could’ve taken more jump shots and maybe put the ball behind my back more, or maybe did more ‘ooh, ahh’ plays to let scouts know I’m skilled. I had to sacrifice for the team.”

Stokes also hit on the financial struggles mentioned by many collegiate athletes. With debate continuing to rage about the potential of a union of college athletes and if those athletes should receive additional compensation,Stokes chronicled some of the difficulties he faced.

“It’s hard to not make this decision,” he said. “A wake-up call was when I was a freshman here at UT and the Stokes t-shirts had sold out and they had just re-stocked it. I walked in there with my whole family and I asked for a free shirt, and I couldn’t get it.

“I’ve had certain times where it’s hard to pay cell phone bills, car insurance and it was hard to eat at night at certain times. I realized there’s a lot of great people around Tennessee that want to help, but they fear the possibility of what could happen.”

He went on to mention the frustration of seeing his jersey being sold for $100 while he struggled to pay basic bills.

That debate isn’t going away. But Stokes now will have the opportunity to take care of himself and his family if he does land in the NBA. Right now he’s widely projected as a second-round pick, leaving him without a guaranteed contract, but with a strong chance to make an NBA roster.

NBADraft.net projects him as the No. 38 overall pick in the draft. Draftexpress.com has him going at No. 53 overall.

“I will say that the next month or two are probably the most important months of my life, as far as being able to dominate workouts and working on my body,” Stokes said. “I plan on walking into the combine a totally different person, having my body trimmed, and even losing more weight than I did the previous year. And I definitely plan on working on my skills.”

“My parents are proud of me, and everyone has had my back in this decision,” Stokes continued. “Like I said, I get to pave the way. It’s not just about me.”

Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga

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