When Jarnell Stokes decided to return for his junior season in 2013-14, the writing was already on the wall it would be his last. And while Jarnell steadily increased his production during his 2.5 year career in Knoxville - 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds as a sophomore, 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds last year - playing in Cuonzo Martin's system gave him fewer opportunities to show off any additional offensive skills. The assumption for many, even after the Vols caught fire late and played their way to the Sweet 16, was that Stokes was who he was as an exceptional rebounder but would fall to somewhere in the second round. At 6'8" he lacks the height to be an NBA five, and hadn't shown the ball skills most NBA fours possess. We also assumed coming back for his senior season wouldn't really change any of these factors, and he left school right around the same time the Vols needed a new head coach.
But it seems some of those qualities we didn't get a chance to see in Knoxville have been showing up in pre-draft workouts. Stokes is on the rise in mock drafts everywhere:
- SB Nation rates him as the 25th best overall prospect
- DraftExpress has him going 26th to Miami
- Basketball Insiders list him as one of the fastest rising prospects
- Chad Ford at ESPN.com (Insider subscription required) has him going 22nd to hometown Memphis
- CBS Sports has two of their three prognosticators picking Stokes in the first round, Matt Moore 28th to the Clippers and Gary Parrish 30th to San Antonio
Either teams are developing additional appreciation for a bullish rebounding presence, or Stokes has been knocking down the jump shots he really wasn't asked to take in Knoxville. It's exciting to see him move this far up the board and see his hard work and decision to leave early potentially pay off.
Stokes' legacy in Knoxville will always be tied to Cuonzo Martin, and Cuonzo's legacy will depend in part on how successful Donnie Tyndall is in following him. Stokes played just out of the reach of Bruce Pearl but was a memorable boost to not just the basketball program but the athletic department when Cuonzo closed the deal in recruiting and the Memphis-area prospect signed the with Vols, then became eligible immediately. In his third game he scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 29 minutes as the Vols beat defending National Champion UConn. He was consistently productive throughout his career, but went full beast mode in his final games this year when Tennessee won three games in five days to move from Dayton to the Sweet 16:
- vs Iowa: 5 of 7 FG, 8 of 11 FT, 18 points, 13 rebounds
- vs UMass: 7 of 11 FG, 12 of 13 FT, 26 points, 14 rebounds
- vs Mercer: 6 of 14 FG, 5 of 5 FT, 17 points, 18 rebounds
Regardless of the drama surrounding Tennessee's season and its head coach, Stokes' play in the NCAA Tournament
should be well remembered by Vol fans as a fitting end to his Tennessee career, and the beginning of his northward march on the draft board.
And similar to Tobias Harris
, Stokes will have a chance to continue to grow his legacy in Knoxville by being successful in the NBA. Tobias, taken 19th in the 2011 NBA Draft
, was the first Vol drafted in nine years and just the fourth Vol drafted since Allan Houston in 1993. Tobias and C.J. Watson are the only Vols currently in the league, Watson a career backup point guard and Harris now four years into a career spent being productive on bad teams in Milwaukee and Orlando.
The really good news for Stokes and for Tennessee fans: if he indeed goes late in the first round, he has a great chance to be a contributor on a contender right away.
Heading into Thursday night's draft, Utah is picking 23rd and Charlotte 24th. The other picks from 21-30: Oklahoma City, Memphis, Houston, Miami, Phoenix, LA Clippers, Oklahoma City, San Antonio. In that mix are a bunch of really good rebounding teams who could see increased value in Stokes and give him a chance to be a part of something special even as a rookie.
In the February 11 late loss to eventual 1-seed Florida, Stokes had 20 points and 11 rebounds playing against Patric Young. Florida's big man was one of the few Stokes faced all year who was big enough to prevent Jarnell from pushing him around. But Stokes still shined, showing flashes of advanced post-up moves he never really needed against smaller competition. In a postgame interview on the Vol Network, Stokes said, "They made me use my skill." It became a good-natured joke on our site the rest of the year whenever Stokes made a spectacular up-and-under move or knocked down a running hook in the lane. But it was a flash of something more, an advanced offensive skill set he didn't have to use because he was so big. With size a bit more equal in the NBA, that skill set will be a must. He also routinely faced double and triple teams almost every night, something he's not likely to see in the NBA. While there will still be some questions about his ability to deal with length in the post, his strength and rebounding IQ should help him find a home down there even if his offensive production doesn't materialize right away.
Regardless of destination, we think fans will like what they get in Stokes. DraftExpress calls him the best offensive rebounder in the draft in the video below, a truth in both advanced stats and the eyeball test. He could be an excellent additional piece for a contender late in the first round, and if the skills which moved him this far up the board show up on a regular basis against NBA post players, you're going to get a lot more than just rebounds.