During a routine conversation about his team in the summer of 2012, Florida coach Billy Donovan took time to answer a question about Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, whom he had just coached in the FIBA U18 World Championships in Brazil, where Team USA won the gold medal.
Even as he was praising Stokes for being dominant—“There was nobody there that could match up with him,” he said—Donovan, ever the coach, talked about how much more dominant Stokes could become. This was no brief summation; Donovan talked more about Stokes than he did his own players.
“I told Jarnell, ‘I’m not holding back any punches with you,’” Donovan said. “The only thing I’m going to hit you with is the truth.”
Donovan’s truth was to tell the 6-foot-8, 260-pound Stokes there would come a time when he faced players he couldn’t overpower. That wasn’t going to happen in international competition—as Donovan found out a year later when Stokes helped Donovan and Team USA win another gold medal, this time in the FIBA U19 World Championships. And it probably wasn’t going to be in college, either.
Donovan was talking about the NBA, where Stokes would be vertically challenged to play power forward and would have to rely on his rare combination of bulk, power and finesse.
“You’ve gotta be Karl Malone,” Donovan told Stokes. The implication was that Stokes still had to learn how to go to work the way The Mailman did.
“That’s the whole key for Jarnell,” Donovan said.
Stokes took that conversation to heart. And Donovan’s advice wasn’t news to former Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, who was kept abreast of Stokes’ progress by a steady stream of text messages and would continue the mantra: Get in the best shape of your life. Play harder than your opponent.
For the better part of the last two seasons, Stokes did exactly that. He used the weight room to streamline his body, but not at the expense of his size advantage. He still managed to hover around 260, but as his body fat reduced, he became chiseled, and quicker on his feet. His tree-trunk legs and size 20 feet helped him establish and maintain position.
The result: From Jan. 26 to March 9 of his sophomore season, Stokes racked up 11 double doubles, including seven in a row. He became a rebounding machine, with an 18-board effort against the Crimson Tide, 16 against Texas A&M, 14 against Florida, 13 against Missouri. SEC coaches were hard-pressed to keep him off the glass, or prevent him from getting to whatever spot on the floor he wanted.
“So big and so wide,” Ole Miss’ Andy Kennedy said. “When we played them, it was all about beating him to spots. Because if he got low-post position, it was difficult to get around him.”
“He’s very, very effective,” Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings said. “He has tremendous strength, but the underrated part about him is how good his hands are. You can’t teach great hands.”
Stokes put those hands on display often, sometimes snatching rebounds one-handed out of necessity as defenders pinned down one of his arms in a fruitless attempt to keep him off the glass.
Stokes signed on with Donovan again in the summer of 2013 for another few weeks of the Florida coach’s truth seminar as the USA U19 won gold again for Donovan and assistant coach Shaka Smart, the VCU coach.
“[Stokes] was good,” Smart told ESPN.com. “He’s so strong with his back to the basket and around the basket. He was a little bothered by size and length at times, but he does a good job of carving out space down there.”
To counteract length, Stokes spent a lot of time working on his handle, so he could drive slower opponents, and improving his perimeter touch.
If SEC coaches thought they were dealing with a monster before, Stokes was even better this season. In earning first-team All-SEC honors, Stokes racked up 22 double-doubles—which tied Bernard King’s school record—and he was one of only three players to average a double-double (15.1 ppg, 11.1 rpg) in conference play. He was a monster in March as the Vols squeezed into the NCAA tournament and reeled off three wins before losing to Michigan. In Tennessee’s final 10 games, Stokes averaged 16.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists and shot .573 from the field and .737 from the free-throw line.
Martin and his staff figured out how to best utilize Stokes, allowing him to put the ball on the floor from the free-throw line extended, a position from which he could either get all the way to the rim or pull up for short- to medium-range jumpers, even a few floaters now and again. Stokes learned that the backboard was his friend, and that once he established scoring angles, banking the ball could be deadly.
After the Vols’ season ended, Stokes had a decision to make. As it turned out, it wasn’t all that difficult. Stokes thought he was ready for the NBA. At least one draft analyst, ESPN.com’s Chad Ford, is projecting Stokes as a first-round pick.
“I felt like it wasn’t a tough decision for me,” Stokes said. “I enjoyed being [at Tennessee] 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 [NCAA] tournament run. 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.”
After three years of being coached and cajoled by Martin, Donovan, Smart and others, Stokes knows what to do in the run-up to the draft.
“The next month or two are probably the most important months of my life,” Stokes said. “As far as being able to dominate workouts and working on my body. 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.”