When Cuonzo Martin convinced Jarnell Stokes to come to Knoxville, he must have imagined a lot of days similar to Tennessee's 83-69 victory Sunday over UMass.
Make no mistake, Stokes has been as advertised since joining the Volunteers. The Vols' power forward has been a force on the glass and an important part of the Tennessee defense, but while he has been a good scorer in spurts he has not often been featured in the Volunteer offense the way he was today.
Last season, Stokes generated most of his scoring opportunistically and through the occasional isolation play, contributing on offense without consistently needing the ball. This output improved Tennessee's offensive efficiency, but at the same time, a Volunteer offense that lacked playmakers was sometimes stagnant and lacked direction.
After struggling early in the second half Sunday against UMass, it looked like the Vols were headed in the same direction. Instead, Tennessee started to run its offense through Stokes and never looked back.
Stokes rewarded his teammates' trust, accumulating 15 points and six rebounds in the second half while also creating good looks for others. Stokes consistently established strong position in the post, leading to an easy basket or requiring double-teams. When doubled, Stokes found the open man and initiated ball movement that led to looks for others.
If Tennessee can build around Stokes in half-court sets, it will become a much more complete team. The Vols always play hard and are a tough defensive team under Martin, and they can generate transition opportunities through strong rebounding and forcing turnovers.
But the Vols' biggest weakness has likely been their half-court offense. Players like Josh Richardson, Jordan McRae and Skyler McBee—all regulars on this team—have unique skill sets but are not particularly good at creating plays, and at times Tennessee looked lost on offense last year.
Tennessee can rely on an experienced Trae Golden at this point, but even Golden often looks more comfortable before the defense has a chance to get set. Golden is a solid creator, but he is not an elite scorer and thus does not command as much defensive attention as a player like Stokes.
Golden's skill set remains crucial, as Sunday he was able to recognize when and where to feed Stokes the ball. Golden's biggest responsibility may become putting Stokes in a position to succeed.
If Golden and the rest of the Volunteers can consistently support Stokes the way they did Sunday, Tennessee may have found the offensive weapon they need to complement the team's other strengths.