Growing pains

Jarnell Stokes is the most intriguing addition to Vol hoops in a long, long time. Sign in or subscribe now to read the latest from InsideTennessee on the freshman sensation.

In his first college game he showed his power by muscling in four of five shots against Kentucky.

In his second college game he showed his stamina by playing 26 minutes against Georgia.

In his third college game he showed his versatility by scoring 16 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking 2 shots against Connecticut.

In his fourth college game he showed his inexperience by allowing himself to be flustered into 7 turnovers and a technical foul against Vanderbilt.

Tennessee mid-term freshman Jarnell Stokes learned a lot from each of his first four outings, including Tuesday's 65-47 loss in Nashville. That lesson: Being a force physically only matters if you keep your cool emotionally.

Simply put, Stokes allowed Vanderbilt's veteran big men — 6-foot-11, 255-pound senior Festus Ezeli, in particular — to get under his skin. They bumped him, jostled him, held him, taunted him and, ultimately, knocked him off his game. Although he grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds in 24 minutes, he went just 2 of 5 from the field and finished with more turnovers (7) than points (6). For the first time since he joined the Vols earlier this month the mid-term freshman looked like an 18-year-old with less than a month's experience in college basketball.

At 6-feet-8 and 270 pounds, Stokes handles physical play better than most. But, crafty veteran that he is, Ezeli exploited Stokes' youth on one occasion in particular. Called for a foul when his arm raked across Stokes' head on a rebound attempt, Ezeli's subsequent expression and body language prompted Stokes to bump him in the chest as he headed upcourt, resulting in technical fouls on each player.

When asked point-blank if Vanderbilt's overtly aggressive play frustrated him, however, Stokes shrugged.

"Basketball's a competitive sport," he said. "It was just the heat of the moment. That's basketball."

Head coach Cuonzo Martin credited Vandy for doing "a good job game-planning to be physical with him, making him work for everything. I don't think he was fazed by the physical part. I think it's just (a matter of) being strong with the ball, making quick moves, being aggressive and going up strong."

Ultimately, Martin believes the Vanderbilt game will prove to be "one of the best things for him" because it enabled Stokes to "really get a gauge and a feel. The big fellow (Ezeli) did a good job defending him but they also defended (the post) well as a team. That's part of his growth."

As for Stokes' seven turnovers, Martin has seen gifted players endure tough nights before.

"I remember playing with Glenn Robinson (at Purdue)," Martin said. "As great a player as he was, I remember games with seven, eight, nine turnovers because he was going through it and getting adjusted to the atmosphere. Once he made the necessary adjustments, he was tough to defend. I think he (Stokes) will do the same."

Though a bit embarrassed by the turnover total, Tennessee's massive freshman isn't letting it get him down.

"I think every player goes through it, and I definitely learned from it," Stokes said. "But I hope I don't have any more games like it."

Asked what specifically he learned from Tuesday's game, the freshman replied: "I learned not to rush my shot. Part of the seven turnovers was me rushing a lot of stuff, not staying with my mechanics and the stuff I do in practice. I got in the game and got excited and changed everything up. But I don't want to make any excuses about being on the road; that's not why I committed seven turnovers."

After being a man among boys at the high school level, Stokes is finding that many college posts are similar to him in size. That is requiring some adjustment on his part.

"I'm not being able to push guys around like I could in high school," he conceded.

He's not able to intimidate guys like he could in high school, either. That was especially evident Tuesday night at Vanderbilt, where the Commodores' constant slapping and clawing at the ball seemed to fluster Stokes a bit.

"But he didn't back down from it; he continued to be aggressive," Vol point guard Trae Golden said of Stokes. "That's what we want from him. Everybody's going to have their ups and downs. It's not something he should hang his head about; he's supposed to be in high school still. Teams are going to eye in on him because he can definitely have a huge impact on a game. I thought he did well, and I know he'll bounce back Saturday."

Certainly, Stokes is eager to redeem himself in Saturday's home game against Auburn. He's especially eager to redeem himself March 3, when Tennessee hosts Ezeli and Vanderbilt in what shapes up as a grudge rematch.

Acknowledging that the Commodores were more physical than his previous college opponents, Stokes somberly noted: "I could've been much more physical, and I'm looking forward to the next game."

Jarnell Stokes will have 14 college games behind him by then, so Festus Ezeli might want to bring his A-game.


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