- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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When he made the decision over the weekend, he changed projections for his program.
Jarnell Stokes could have turned pro. It wouldn’t have been a wise decision for the Tennessee standout. But he probably would’ve been drafted.
There’s always a place for a 6-foot-8, 270-pound forward who averaged 12.4 PPG/9.6 RPG and recorded double-doubles with ease in 2012-13.
But Stokes recognized that he had more to prove, room to grow.
Plus, he knows that Tennessee could be a stellar program in 2013-14.
“I was planning on actually leaving,” Stokes, a graduate of Southwind High, said Saturday.
That slowly changed over the two months since the season ended. Reality crystallized. A report from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee told Stokes he was, at best, a second-round pick. He deliberated, discussing options with those closest to him, including Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin.
Decision day came Saturday. Stokes met with Knoxville media in the UT basketball office lobby inside Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I think,” Stokes said, hunching his king-sized shoulders, “that the best decision is to stay.”
Just like that, the last piece of Tennessee’s 2013-14 men’s basketball puzzle fell into place.
Begrudgingly or not, Stokes will return to the Vols for his junior season.
“Guys were saying I can’t shoot. Well I know I can shoot. Guys were saying he’s short. Well, I have a 7-2 wingspan,” Stokes said. “I just have to work on the other things. I was confident enough to go into (NBA team) workouts and show that, but at the end of the day, when you have to sign those papers and send it in, you don’t want to risk your whole career on a couple of workouts. That’s what my decision was based on.”
Kentucky seems untouchable at the moment.
Julius Randle will anchor the No. 1 team in America once preseason rankings are officially announced in the coming months. And the Wildcats will obviously be the team to beat in the SEC.
But Tennessee is a player in that conference, too.
Cuonzo Martin has a talented squad.
Jordan McRae, an all-SEC first-teamer, is back. Jeronne Maymon, who averaged 12.7 PPG in 2011-12 but missed last season with knee injury, will return, too. And Robert Hubbs, a top-50 recruit, anchors a solid recruiting class.
The same Tennessee team that missed the Big Dance last year should be equipped to win a few games in the tourney come 2013-14.
I know it’s not prudent to get too excited about a squad that’s essentially returning the core from a team that missed the NCAA tournament, but Tennessee finished strong. And the Vols have as much potential as any team in the SEC that’s not named Kentucky.
And they have one of the most dominant players in the league inside.
Stokes said all of the things any coach would want his star player to say shortly after making such a significant decision.
Yes, he’s back because he wants to get better. But he also has a chip on his shoulder.
And that could impact the way he competes. That’s the kind of attitude that can affect an entire roster.
Think about Butler basketball. VCU basketball. Wichita State basketball last season. A roster filled with athletes who felt slighted, doubted.
That “Oh, we’ll show you” mantra could be one that Vols basketball uses as fuel for next season.
The talent is there but Martin’s program still has to convert many following last year’s inconsistency.
But he has some convincing pieces.
Stokes didn’t make as much noise as the other young talents who opted for another season. But it could be one of the most meaningful decisions in recent weeks.
I talked to Martin a few weeks ago, and he really wasn’t sure about Stokes. He was legitimately concerned that he might skip his junior season.
Now that he’s back, however, Martin has everything he needs for a top-3 finish in the SEC and the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2011.
That should probably be the expectation for that team now.