When discussing athletes, whose personalities and traits we constantly assess despite their penchant of keeping us at arm's length, discourse often devolves into a series of sweeping generalizations birthed from a select few major events.
For Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, a likely first-round pick in Thursday's 2014 NBA Draft, the sweeping generalizations have rarely been fit for the round of morning manufactured-debate shows. He has never had any character issues. Never been TMZ fodder for his late-night activities.
"From Day 1, he never had character issues," Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin, who recruited and coached Stokes at Tennessee, told Bleacher Report. "He’s a guy who understands what he’s doing, who he’s playing for and what he’s playing for."
But perception follows every NBA prospect. Stokes is no different.
When Stokes speaks, as he did last week in a lengthy one-on-one interview with Bleacher Report, you can tell he is fighting—and not just to move up draft boards. He's fighting against those perceptions. The perception that he's not big enough. The perception that he's not quick enough. The perception that his basketball IQ is somehow lower because he's a post player. The perception that kids from the inner city are lost to the system, that they cannot overcome their surroundings to sit on the precipice of realizing their dream.
"From a perception standpoint, when you watch him from afar, you don’t see it all," Martin said. "I knew once he got into those workouts, it was just a matter of time."
Stokes' basketball education began in Memphis, a city of more than 650,000 right in the middle of SEC country. Football is king, queen, prince and princess, though basketball is ingrained somewhere within the royal family. The list of former NBA players from Memphis includes Anfernee Hardaway, but is defined by a list of lunchpail workers who cashed their checks by working harder than anyone else.
"Toughness is inside of you. It’s a matter of somebody pulling it out," Martin said. "I think how he was raised, the city of Memphis, just the culture within itself is battle-tested. His mom and dad raised him, so that part was in him."
A product of a two-parent household in Memphis, you can see the city in Stokes' game. Listed at 6'9" and 262 pounds, Stokes built his reputation on being willing to do work others wouldn't. He averaged 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds as a junior, his body careening off an opponent to create separation on nearly every possession.
"I take pride in Memphis," Stokes said. "I feel like it gave me a tough exterior, and my mentality toward the basket portrays where I’ve come from. A lot of guys my size, it’s hard to get them to have a tough mindset when attacking the basket. I say this all the time—it doesn’t matter how athletic you are, it’s about your mentality."
Willie Stokes, Jarnell's father and at times his harshest critic, played a large part in instilling that mentality. A military man without tolerance for nonsense, outward displays of emotion were barred and the Stokes children were taught a buttoned-down approach. High school and AAU coaches kept Jarnell preoccupied with basketball when others around him were succumbing to their surroundings. What broke down other kids only pushed Jarnell on the court.
"My dad definitely helped me," Stokes said when asked how his upbringing has shaped his game. "He didn’t allow me to show emotion growing up, and he was very strict on me. That gave me a presence inside myself to be more of a force."
Force might be the operative word.
A 5-star recruit, Stokes was Martin's biggest coup in his inaugural recruiting class in Knoxville. The pair grew together, player and coach, each playing his part to resurrect a Tennessee program torn apart in wake of the Bruce Pearl scandal. The Volunteers improved their record each of the three seasons Martin and Stokes spent together, with the big man developing from wide-eyed role player to perhaps the SEC's most dominant inside presence.
Stokes increased his scoring, rebounding and assist numbers every year at Tennessee despite exponentially increasing defensive attention.
As a junior, only Kentucky's Julius Randle had more double-doubles than Stokes' 22. In his one opportunity to play Randle, a virtual lock for the lottery Thursday, he scored 20 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a narrow loss.
“Stokes outworked our big guys,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters after the Wildcats' 74-68 win. “He just outworked them. There was a free ball and he got them—almost every one.”
But all the individual accolades were not leading to team success. Tennessee got off to a lackluster 15-10 start, which included losses to Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and UTEP. Unsatisfied with the direction of the program, Volunteer alumni and fans called for Martin's firing—and even the rehiring of Pearl, who remained a popular figure in Knoxville despite his myriad NCAA violations. More than 11,000 people signed a petition to bring in Pearl following a 75-70 loss to Missouri in February.
Not normally a demonstrative figure in the locker room—Martin described his protege as the type who would "pull [a teammate] to the side" rather than call them out—the nadir of Stokes' collegiate career unleashed a more vocal leader.
It wound up being a turning point. Tennessee closed with five wins in its last six regular-season games, pushed Florida to the brink in the semifinals of the SEC tournament and squeaked in as one of the last four teams to make the Big Dance.
"I think he did a great job down the stretch being more vocal and communicating what he wanted from his teammates," Martin said. "When he took that step, our team took that next step."
Given his first opportunity on the sport's biggest stage, Stokes took full advantage. He finished with a double-double in each of Tennessee's first three games, leading the 11th-seeded Vols to a surprise Sweet 16 berth. Michigan ended Tennessee's run in a 73-71 thriller in the second weekend, a last-second missed free throw from Nik Stauskas falling into Stokes' hand as the buzzer sounded.
Stokes finished with tournament averages of 18 points and 12.8 rebounds, but he barely had a moment to breathe before making his next big step. Two weeks after the Vols were eliminated, Stokes announced his decision to forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the draft. Within a few days, Martin was being introduced as the next head coach at Cal.
The player and coach who came up together, who grew together, left together. It was time for a new era.
There's a funny thing about perception. The same traits that can make you a force in college can also get twisted, transmogrified into defining characteristics that inform their entire judgment of you as a player. Jarnell Stokes, Double-Double Machine becomes Jarnell Stokes, What Else Can He Do?
Everyone knows Stokes will rebound at the next level. He may be the best board hound in the entire class. The draft process for Stokes has been a combination of confirming teams' suspicions about his toughness and work ethic while also proving there's more to his game than what he showed at Tennessee.
At the combine, teams got their first glimpse. Stokes, who some worried would be too undersized to play the NBA power forward position, measured in at 6'8.5" with a 7'1.25" reach in Chicago. He had 8.2 percent body fat on his 263-pound frame; the phrase "NBA body" might never have been more apt. He also performed average or better for his position in most of the agility drills. His 36-inch maximum vertical was a half-inch better than Randle's and only an inch less than Indiana's Noah Vonleh's number.
Everything was going exactly to plan. Until it wasn't.
Less than a week after the combine, Stokes was on his way to the airport for his first individual workout with the Miami Heat when he was involved in two-car accident. Not wearing his seatbelt, Stokes used his arm to shield his head from the impact. While he walked away with only minor injuries—a few cuts, a concussion—basketball had to be placed on hold.
"I was able to dominate at the combine—we did a lot of 2-on-2, a lot of 3-on-3, and I was able to dominate," Stokes said. "The next thing you know, this car crash comes and it sorta put me out for 10 days. But I’m blessed because it could have been much worse."
The accident put Stokes' back firmly against the wall. Already battling to secure a spot in the first round and the guaranteed payday that comes with it, Stokes quickly made up for lost time. His workout schedule, which at one point Stokes informed his agent to make as jam-packed as possible, was trimmed to nine: Houston, Utah, Memphis, Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles (Clippers), Miami, Phoenix and Oklahoma City. Because of the expedited nature of his schedule, he had back-to-backs and was ping-ponging across the country at a time where his contemporaries were able to pick and choose dates more freely.
"Some teams liked me and they didn’t get to see me in workouts," Stokes said. "I feel like me being able to work out with a team is beneficial because I don’t think people know how well I can shoot the ball. I don’t think people understand how high my IQ is when I’m inside workouts and how much more skilled I am than I was in college."
At the workouts he was able to attend, Stokes did everything in his power to leave an impression.
In Toronto and Utah, he went head-to-head against Michigan State forward Adreian Payne—a possible lottery pick—and decisively won the battle. In Toronto, coaches came away impressed at the level to which Stokes got the better of Payne—especially given that most draft boards have the former Spartans star ahead of his closest draft competition.
Other workouts saw coaches hand Stokes a ball at the three-point line and told him to start shooting—the so-called sink-or-swim proposition. Stokes, who shot 37 jump shots total during his junior season, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), began knocking them down. Martin and Stokes both say that, while they understood that Stokes had to bang inside for Tennessee to win, teams are beginning to see traits of his game that were always hiding under the surface.
"We needed Jarnell to score around the rim, grab rebounds and those things," Martin said. "He’s obviously showing those guys he can do more. Teams didn’t realize [before workouts] how well he moves. He can bowl through you and he can get up and go around you."
Garnering comparisons to David West and Paul Millsap—two players who made their collegiate reputations as rebounders before expanding their games—Stokes is now a borderline lock to go in the first round. The Bulls are considering him as early as No. 19, while the basement of his range is likely the Spurs at No. 30.
Sitting there at No. 22? Stokes' hometown Grizzlies.
The fit is natural for reasons of narrative and basketball purposes. Stokes is a grinder who does all the little things well—a seamless transition into the grit-and-grind lifestyle Zach Randolph and Tony Allen have fostered in the Grizzlies' locker room. The Memphis kid also credits the current regime, specifically the Pau Gasol trade, for reviving the once-dead love for basketball in his city. When he was brought in for an 80-minute workout this month, Stokes came away impressed that the front office knew almost as much about him as he did them.
"It was almost surreal to be around the front-office guys, and I didn’t know how much they had been watching me throughout my career," Stokes said. "I have a great deal of respect for those guys."
But Stokes understands not every story has a Hollywood ending. The Grizzlies have other needs, specifically for a wing-oriented shooter. Whether or not he returns to his hometown for a full-circle moment, Stokes says he will always have one hand in the community, looking to help kids like him and change the mindset of people who think children brought up in Memphis' inner city are "bad people."
And Stokes knows the best way to change that perception is by proving himself on the court. By taking the increased shooting range and first-step quickness he has shown during workouts and translating it to an NBA floor. By summoning the toughness that defines the city in which he was raised and how he grew in the Stokes home the same way he did at Tennessee.
"I feel like I can help a team by doing the little things that winning teams need in order to become a great team," Stokes said. "Rebounding, toughness, just that mindset that I bring to the game."
"And I will not be a liability on offense."
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