KNOXVILLE — After an impressive 20-point, 15-rebound game against 13th-ranked Kentucky on Saturday, Jarnell Stokes insisted he wanted no extra hype added to his performance because of the opponent.
It actually may have been the name on the other team's jersey that prompted the big game from the Tennessee forward.
Stokes admitted before Tuesday's practice that he played with something to prove in the Volunteers' loss in Lexington, and the next step becomes using that approach and producing at that high level for every game, starting tonight at home against Arkansas and Saturday at sixth-ranked Florida.
"We talk about all the time, and I just think for him it's playing each opponent the same," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said Tuesday. "It doesn't matter who it is. I think the stage has something to do with his level of play. I think he wanted to play well against those guys, but you have to be consistent with that.
"He's a guy that demands a double-team when he's rebounding and he's aggressive. Any time out the gates he's aggressive and assertive, most cases he has a great night or a good night. Just for him, [it's] being active, being in attack mode, attacking the rim, when he gets some transition baskets getting out running and getting some easy ones, sprinting back on defense."
With a handful of NBA scouts and personnel in attendance, the 6-foot-8 Stokes turned in the best performance of his career against a Kentucky frontcourt that included Julius Randle, a 6-9 likely lottery pick in June's NBA draft, and 7-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson.
Stokes was active, aggressive and energetic. He made 8 of 12 shots from the field and grabbed seven offensive rebounds against taller, longer players. That facet of his game has some detractors, who wonder how his game translates to the NBA.
"I came out with the same mindset," Stokes said. "I was sort of mad because a lot of people said I can't finish over length, so I really wanted to prove that question wrong about myself and how people compare my game. They say it wouldn't be able to translate to any pro team, so I really wanted to come out and make sure that it was understood that I can score over length.
"I really feel like I've been playing the same as far as playing hard and bringing energy."
For the season, Stokes is averaging 13.8 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, and he's dramatically increased his free-throw shooting, up to 72.8 percent from 56.7 the first two seasons of his Vols career.
Still, three of his four single-digit scoring games came in half of Tennessee's six losses. Stokes fouled out with just four points in 20 minutes at Xavier in the season opener and scored just eight points in 22 foul-plagued minutes at Wichita State.
First-half foul trouble, along with an AC joint contusion in his right shoulder that had him doubting he'd play at LSU just a few days earlier, limited Stokes to six points and five rebounds in the loss to Texas A&M.
"I've really, really, really been struggling with foul trouble as far as when I get those two early fouls, it sort of takes me out of my game, and I really need to work on that," he said. "The Texas A&M game ... once I got those two fouls, there was no more adrenaline. The second half, I was basically dead. I got one rebound and zero points, and that really hurt me."
Martin liked how Stokes defended against Kentucky's penetration Saturday, and when asked if his player stacked up among the nation's best, the coach replied, "There's no doubt in my mind. I'd take him up against anybody."
It's highly likely Stokes will leave Tennessee after the season and enter the NBA draft as a junior.
"His goal is to be a pro, and that's my goal for him," Martin said. "We don't talk about it through the course of the season. We sit down at the beginning of the season and talk about what he needs to do to be that, because that's my goal for him, without a doubt."
That's Stokes' aim, too, and more performances like the one in Rupp Arena will help move him closer to it.
"I know I can score over length," he said. "I've been doing it for about the last month now, so that just helped me out more to let me know I can do it. When we're playing against a 7-footer, normally in the past I may struggle, but I'm starting to understand how to use my body and how to run the floor, and guys are doing a good job of finding me."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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