Thinner, Smarter, Meaner: Jarnell Stokes looks to finally reach potential as a rebounder

Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes talks to the media during a press conference at Thompson-Boling Arena in April 2013, after it was announced that he will be staying with the men’s basketball team for his junior year. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes talks to the media during a press conference at Thompson-Boling Arena in April 2013, after it was announced that he will be staying with the men’s basketball team for his junior year. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Cuonzo Martin recounted an offseason story Monday of former Tennessee great Allan Houston visiting campus and seeing Jarnell Stokes. The former Tennessee great and current assistant general manager of the New York Knicks has met Stokes in the past.

On this visit, though, Houston glanced past Stokes. According to Martin, Houston didn’t recognize the UT junior forward, which is hard to believe, given Stokes’ strong resemblance to an orange telephone booth.

But Stokes does look slightly different, in that he himself is slighter. In a conversation with the News Sentinel on Saturday, Stokes said he’s down to 262 pounds and has trimmed off “weight I needed to lose.” A year ago at this time he was over 270.

Stokes said he still has five pounds left to lose and added that he’s “finally figured out how to lose weight and that’s the biggest thing for me.”

Martin specifically mentioned Stokes’ weight loss during a Monday press conference. Since entering UT as a 6-foot-8, 250-pound 17-year-old in December 2011, Stokes has packed on muscle and shed baby fat. Neither element drastically changed his ability to get up and down the court or the air.

This recent change has paid dividends, though.

“When he came back from USA Basketball, you could see the explosiveness,” Martin said, referring to Stokes’ experience with the U.S. Men’s Junior National Team at the FIBA U19 World Championships in Prague, Czech Republic, this summer. “He was getting rebounds over the rim. When he’d get offensive rebounds last year and he’d go to the offensive glass, he did a great job of getting them and carving out space. Well now he’s going and getting them from up over the rim. That’s the next level for his game.”

Throughout last season, Stokes lamented endlessly about playing without injured frontcourt mate Jeronne Maymon and the impact on his game. Battling double-teams was clearly an adjustment, but paltry early season rebound totals from Stokes had little to do with Maymon.

It was effort. It was body positioning. At 6-foot-8, 270 pounds, Stokes could grab five, six, seven rebounds per game merely by standing near the basket. Over the second half of the year, however, a noticeable shift occurred.

Stokes became a rebounder instead of a player who got rebounds. He threw around his weight. He battled, more consistently than ever, on the blocks. Results came.

(Story continues after the stats)

Credit: statsheet.com

Credit: statsheet.com

Credit: statsheet.com

Credit: statsheet.com

Credit: statsheet.com

Credit: statsheet.com

Note the direction of the above red lines. That’s Stokes’ season average in rebounds per games, offensive rebounding percentage and defensive rebounding percentage. The upward trajectory parallels only one thing –  Stokes’ effort.

Now Martin hopes the attitude seen over the’ second half of 2012-13 will combine with a more explosive frame and an offseason education stemming from an NBA draft flirtation. If it all comes together, Stokes will be one of the best rebounders in the country.

“I can probably count on one hand how many times he went and got big rebounds in games last year – South Carolina I think he had two big ones,” Martin said. “But in the workouts this summer he was going and getting them. I think that’s the biggest key with his game – to go get rebounds. With he and Jeronne, with the way that those guys rebound, it should take two to four guys just to keep those two guys off the glass (in 2013-14).”

Stokes says he gets it. He read the NBA scouting reports and talked to player personnel gurus. Anyone who has watched his season and a half in Knoxville likely knows what was said: Stokes needs to expand his offensive repertoire, move better defensively, rebound with some gusto and playing a little angry. Better free-throw shooting might help, too.

Judging by everything heard on Saturday and Monday, some of the shortcomings have been addressed.

“Going through the draft process changed my life,” Stokes said. “Before that, I didn’t know how vulnerable I was in certain areas, but it is all business when it comes to the draft process. They let you know what you need to know and they tell you how good you are. I really had to change a lot of things, but I’m going in the right direction.”

Martin has said what the NBA scouts said. Martin, however, is not an NBA scout.

“When you hear it yourself, it kind of hits home, so to speak,” Martin said Monday. “Coach is kind of like mom and dad – I hear it all the time. But now all the sudden you get the information from an NBA team and it’s the same stuff that we’re saying, now it’s – OK, I need to get this done. Because now you’re talking about money and this is how you’ll eat in the future. (Stokes) understands what he has to do to be successful.”

At least some things have been recognized.