I visited basketball practice at Tennessee on Thursday afternoon. I was very impressed with several things, especially how hard Coach Cuonzo Martin works his kids, and how hard they push themselves. Simply put, there are no loafers.
Perhaps the most impressive person I saw was sophomore post-player Jarnell Stokes. He’s the young man who graduated early from Southwind High School in Memphis and made an immediate impact on the Tennessee program. He signed with the Vols on December 23rd, (What a great Christmas present for Coach Martin) and appeared in seventeen games, starting fourteen of them. He was the team’s second leading rebounder and third leading scorer, and was named to the All-SEC Freshman squad.
In the pre-season, he was selected to the First Team, All-SEC squad after starring for Team USA in the U18 Championships in Brazil. He would be a coveted prize for most any NBA team, but he still needs a little work. What he doesn’t need however, is more size and strength.
Last year, Jarnell was a 6’8” 255-pound baby. Oh he was plenty strong and powerful, with quick feet and a soft shooting touch, but he still had quite a bit of baby-fat around the middle. Not now. Jarnell stands 6'8” and weighs 270 pounds, with just eight percent body fat. He is absolutely ripped, and yes, I called him a beast. If he gets the ball down low, he will either score, or you will foul him, period. When he goes to the foul line, well that’s where he needs some work. Last year he hit just 57% from charity lane. His average could be a lot higher if he raises his percentage to 70% or more.
Hitting free throws is very important, but it’s especially important for big men. (Think how many more points Shaquille O’Neal would have scored with a better free throw percentage.) As strong as Jarnell is inside, he will get many opportunities for three-point plays. (He converted eleven of them last season.)
“Coach Martin told us last year, to be careful what you ask for, and be ready when your time comes. I thought he was talking indirectly to me,” Stokes said. “The next thing you know, I was starting in the UConn game.” Stokes held the Huskies’ highly regarded power forward, Alex Oriahki to a mere six points, so playing defense is definitely not a weakness. “You know, the SEC is an animal, so throwing me into the fire against guys like UConn, and Kentucky, Georgia, and Arkansas, that’s the best of the best, the cream of the crop. It gave me a load of confidence, and let me know, I’m here.”
All news from the “Big Orange Camp was not good on Thursday. The Tennessee coaching staff is still worried about the injured knee of Stokes’ fellow post-player, Jeronne Maymon. Maymon is working hard in rehab, but is not expected to play at all the first few weeks of the season, if then. If Maymon isn’t ready, there will be more pressure on Kenny Hall and others to step up and make the Vols’ front court one of the best in the SEC, if not the entire country.
Tennessee is picked fourth in the SEC Media poll, and ranked in just about every top-25 poll there is. This could be a really special season for Tennessee basketball. After all, with all the disappointments the Big Orange Nation has had to endure in football, they’re all ready for success on the hard wood. It all starts with an 18-year-old man child wearing slick orange shorts. A 6’8”, 270-pound man child named Jarnell Stokes.
Randy Smith has been covering sports in Tennessee for the last 43 years. After leaving WRCB-TV in 2009, he has continued his broadcasting career as a free-lance play-by-play announcer. He is also an author and is a media concepts teacher at Brainerd High School in Chattanooga. He is also the Head Softball Coach at Brainerd. Randy Smith's career has included a 17-year stint as scoreboard host and pre-game talk show host on the widely regarded "Vol Network". He has also done play by play of more than 500 college football, basketball, baseball and softball games on ESPN, ESPN2, Fox Sports, CSS and Tennessee Pay Per View telecasts. He was selected as "Tennessee's Best Sports Talk Show Host" in 1998 by the Associated Press. He has won other major awards including, "Best Sports Story" in Tennessee and his "Friday Night Football" shows on WRCB-TV twice won "Best Sports Talk Show In Tennessee" awards. He has also been the host of "Inside Lee University Basketball" on CSS for the past 11 years. He was the first television broadcaster to ever be elected to the "Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame", in 2003. Randy and his wife, Shelia, reside in Hixson. They have two married children (Christi and Chris Perry; Davey and Alison Smith). They also have three grandchildren (Coleman, Boone, and DellaMae).