KNOXVILLE — Now that Jarnell Stokes has found his identity as a player, Tennessee opponents could find themselves with plenty more bumps and bruises.
“Coming out of high school, a lot of guy haven’t found themselves,” Stokes said. “I think playing here, I’ve figured out I love to post guys up. I love to bully people in the paint. I look forward to doing that more this year, being more of a bully.”
Stokes averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds last year after joining the team at midseason. Having the sophomore forward for a full season could help Tennessee return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence. The Volunteers open the season Nov. 9 against Kennesaw State.
Tennessee returns six of its top seven scorers from a team that went 19-15 overall and 10-6 in the Southeastern Conference last year after being picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams in the league. Florida coach Billy Donovan calls Tennessee the best team in the conference.
“I’m humbled by it and really appreciative of Billy saying great things about us,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said, “but there’s plenty of work to be done.”
Stokes, a preseason first-team all-conference pick, is a major reason for the optimism surrounding the program.
At 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds, Stokes sure has the look of a bruiser. But he didn’t always play the type of game that best suited his physical skills.
“That was part of finding myself,” Stokes said. “In high school, I was thinking maybe I want to play the ‘three’ or maybe I’d want to bring the ball up the court sometimes. But I feel like I’ve found myself now.”
The difference is evident to his teammates.
“When he first came in, he didn’t really understand how to use his strength and size,” senior forward Kenny Hall said. “Now he throws it everywhere.”
Even though Stokes hadn’t matured as a player yet, he still caught plenty of people by surprise last season. He even surprised himself.
Stokes graduated from high school last December and enrolled at Tennessee during the semester break believing he might redshirt. He instead ranked second on the team in rebounding and third in scoring.
“That was something I talked about with him and his dad, possibly redshirting,” Martin said. “We wanted his transition to be an easy and smooth one. When he got here, it was a case of he was ready to play. He knew he wasn’t 100 percent from a physical standpoint because he hadn’t played a lot, but he wanted to get out there and support the team.”
Now he’s in much better shape.
Stokes cut pizza from his diet, making an exception only during the Vols’ summer tour of Italy. He also had been drinking five or six bottles of sports drinks a day before noticing their calorie content. Now he only drinks those on the court. The change has improved his stamina.
“There were a lot of games (last season) when I was just dog tired at the end,” Stokes said. “It was horrible. It honestly was. There were a lot of games where toward the end of the game, I didn’t dunk the ball. I laid the ball up. That will be a big difference this year.”
The Vols need an improved Stokes because they’ll probably open the season without senior forward Jeronne Maymon.
Maymon compiled 12.7 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game last season while serving as the Vols’ emotional leader, but he recently suffered a setback in his recovery from arthroscopic surgery on his knees. Martin hasn’t said when Maymon might return.
Tennessee may have enough depth to survive Maymon’s absence. Stokes and Hall should give the Vols a solid frontcourt duo. Senior guard Trae Golden led the Vols with 13.6 points per game last season. The backcourt also returns Jordan McRae, Skylar McBee and Josh Richardson, who each made at least nine starts last season.
The Vols also have a year of experience playing for Martin. They have a better idea of how to run his motion offense and a greater appreciation for his grueling practices. They’re more equipped to play the style of game that Martin prefers.
“We play a physical brand of basketball, but it’s not out of control,” Martin said. “It’s not chaos. We have to be able to play hard without fouling guys. That’s been an emphasis for us.”
That experience gives the Vols confidence that was apparent in their reaction after the media predicted them to finish fourth in the SEC. That’s a significant rise for a team that was picked 11th a year ago, but the Vols aren’t satisfied.
“In my opinion, I think we’re better than fourth in the league,” Stokes said. “But we’ll let our game do the talking.”