Learning curve

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The key question regarding heralded mid-term basketball signee Jarnell Stokes is not how much the 5-star prospect can contribute for Tennessee but how soon.

Post players generally play near the basket, so Stokes' adjustment to college ball might seem simpler than that of a point guard who must run the offense or a wing who must continually cut and come off picks to try and get open.

Still, Vol head man Cuonzo Martin suggests that the 6-foot-8, 245-pounder faces much the same learning curve as a freshman post that he would as a freshman perimeter player.

"Obviously, he's physically strong enough," the coach said. "But that's just not enough. There's execution, understanding the plays and what we expect on both ends of the floor, how to compete, how to condition your body and how hard to work. A lot of guys work high-school hard but this is a different level."

Basically, Martin said Stokes' impact will hinge on one factor: "What he picks up and how soon he picks it up."

Tennessee's other freshmen got to cut their teeth against two Div. II exhibition foes, followed by mediocre UNC Greensboro and Louisiana Monroe squads. Conversely, Stokes projects to make his college debut Jan. 12 at No. 18 Mississippi State or Jan. 14 against No. 3 Kentucky. Obviously, facing a nationally-ranked opponent in your NCAA baptism is a tall order.

"His first college games are going to be against the elite talent of the SEC," Martin noted. "It's not games where you can possibly win by 25 points and he's going to get 15 or 16 rebounds. He comes out of the gate against the best in the country."

Stokes didn't earn a 5-star rating from Scout.com by accident, however. He's an exceptionally big, strong, gifted athlete.

"We're excited about Jarnell. He's a talented young man," Martin conceded. "More importantly, he's a guy with substance, a guy with character. He's an elite player but he's one of those guys that doesn't go about his business like that (cocky). He's a worker. He's in the gym all the time. He wants to become a really good basketball player, and he puts the time into it."

Asked if he expects immediate impact from the burly Memphian, Martin replied: "Just one day at a time. We've talked about this for a long time. As far as if he plays or when he plays, the timetable is how his body is conditioned. The most important thing is him being healthy and ready to play."

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin plans on easing Stokes into the game plan 'one day at a time.'
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

To his credit, Stokes seems determined to blend into the team concept — emotionally, as well as athletically.

"He knows as well as I do that he has to fit in to the team," Martin said, subsequently adding: "He's reached out and said he wants every guy on the team's phone number, so he can call the guys and be a part of it."

Because he was ruled ineligible for his senior season of high school ball after transferring from Central to Southwind, Stokes hasn't participated in an organized game in nearly six months. He has been working out on his own but still may not be ready to withstand the rigors of a Tennessee practice.

"It'll be interesting to see how he reacts when he gets a dose of a Cuonzo Martin practice," senior Cameron Tatum said. "We'll see where he's at."

Asked how long it took him to get used to the first-year Vol coach's workouts, Tatum rolled his eyes and replied, "I'm still getting used to 'em."

Clearly, Stokes will need some time to acclimate physically, as well as mentally, before he's comfortable at the collegiate level.

"You're talking about a guy who probably hasn't played a lot of five-on-five basketball since an AAU Tournament in July," Martin said. "Now all of a sudden you're playing at this elite level against this type of competition and expecting it to happen overnight. It doesn't happen like that."

Martin's businesslike approach features a heavy emphasis on diligence in the gym and in the classroom, character, accountability and teamwork. It's not a formula that fits every teenager but it apparently fits Jarnell Stokes.

"He came around the program, got around the players, and understood how we handle our business here at Tennessee," Martin said. "I think that impressed him more than anything."

The abrupt addition of a newcomer two months into a season could disturb a team's chemistry. Martin says that won't happen with Stokes and the 2011-12 Vols, however.

"Our guys are excited," the coach said. "We have good guys on this team. They want to be a really good team, and they want good players coming into our program. Obviously, competition brings out the best in everybody."

Junior center Kenny Hall is pleased, not threatened, by the arrival of a heralded newcomer such as Stokes.

"I've seen him play once or twice, and he's a good player," Hall said. "We definitely can use his toughness and his inside presence."

Trae Golden seems even more pumped.

"He's going to be a great addition to us," the sophomore point guard said. "All of our bigs are great but Jarnell is going to come in here and add a new dimension. We can't wait to get him on campus."

Like most college coaches, Martin never had a freshman join one of his teams at mid-term before. Thus, he has no blueprint to follow in terms of preparing Jarnell Stokes to play.

"It's just about faith and feel," the coach said. "We have to put him in position to be the best he can be."

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