The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Memphis native essentially said goodbye to the Vols and hello to the NBA Draft on Friday, announcing at a 1 o'clock news conference that he is renouncing his final year of collegiate eligibility to launch a pro career. The draft is June 26 but Stokes has only until April 15 to change his mind and withdraw his name from the draft pool.
Though almost universally projected as a second-round pick, Stokes is eager to prove he can play at basketball's highest level.
"I have made the decision to forgo my senior season and enter the NBA draft," he said. "I will always be a Vol for Life."
In three seasons with the Big Orange Stokes averaged 13.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, including marks of 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds as a junior in 2013-14.
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin said Stokes is a special player whose contributions will not soon be forgotten.
"First of all, I think Jarnell is going to go down as one of the best big men to ever play at Tennessee - certainly one of the most dominant rebounders ever to wear the orange," Martin said. "I hope our fans will celebrate his career, because the growth and development he's shown over the past three years has really been impressive, and I'm proud of the player and man he's become."
The impending departures of Stokes and 6-foot-8, 260-pound senior Jeronne Maymon mean Tennessee must replace both of its 2013-14 post starters. Rising senior Rawane Ndiaye has the size (6-feet-10, 270 pounds) but has questionable hands. Rising sophomore A.J. Davis has the height (6-feet-10) but not the heft (215 pounds) or the experience of playing inside. Rising junior Derek Reese has decent size (6-feet-8, 220 pounds) but hasn't shown he can defend the post. Incoming freshmen C.J. Turman (6-feet-8, 245) and Phil Cofer (6-feet-8, 220) are athletic but green.
Given the suspect outlook for 2014-15, Tennessee's best bet to bolster its post play is probably going the post-graduate transfer route. The Vols are showing great interest in Tennessee State's M.J. Rhett (6-feet-9, 230) and also may pursue Michigan's Jon Horford (6-feet-10, 250). Both expect to graduate this spring and qualify for immediate eligibility at their transfer school.
Stokes is just the fifth underclassman in UT history to leave early for the NBA Draft but the third to do so during the three-year reign of Cuonzo Martin. Two of the premature evacuations (Bernard King, Tobias Harris) have enjoyed success in the NBA. The other two (Marcus Haislip, Scotty Hopson) have not.
King, a three-time first-team All-American who averaged 25.8 points and 13.2 rebounds per game for his career, was the first player in Vol history to jump to the NBA with college eligibility remaining. Taken by the New Jersey Nets with the seventh pick in the 1977 draft, he made immediate impact, averaging 24.2 points per game as a rookie. He went on to play 14 NBA seasons, averaging 22.5 points per game, earning MVP honors (Sporting News) in 1984 and leading the league in scoring (32.9) in '85. He retired with 19,665 points, ranking 16th in NBA history at the time.
Amazingly, 25 years passed before another Tennessee player prematurely jumped to the NBA, and that proved to be a disaster. Haislip had just one good year in college, averaging 16.7 points per game as a junior after posting 4.4 points as a freshman and 5.8 as a sophomore. Still, the 6-foot-10, 220-pounder's eye-popping potential led the Milwaukee Bucks to select him with Pick 13 of the 2002 NBA Draft. He averaged a paltry 3.5 points, 1.5 rebounds and 9.6 minutes per game in three-plus seasons in "The League," making just eight starts and playing in a mere 89 games. He is currently playing pro ball in China.
Two Vols decided to leave early following the 2010-11 Vol season, marking the first time in program history that has happened.
The decision worked well for Harris, who was chosen 19th overall by the Charlotte Bobcats, then traded to the Milwaukee Bucks that same night. After having minimal impact with the Bucks in 2012 (5.0 points, 2.4 rebounds, 11.4 minutes per game) and 2013 (4.9 points, 2.0 rebounds, 11.6 minutes), Harris has rejuvenated his career since being traded to the Orlando Magic. With 36 starts in 57 games, he is averaging 15.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 31.1 minutes per contest.
To date, things have not worked out so well for Hopson, who went undrafted in 2011. The 6-foot-7, 200-pound guard averaged 9.2 points as a Vol freshman, 12.2 as a sophomore and 17.0 as a junior. His ego supposedly turned off some NBA general managers, including one who reportedly said, "That guy is not from the same planet as the rest of us." Snubbed by the NBA, Hopson played in Greece (2011-12), Israel (2012-13) and Turkey (2013-14).
He may yet experience his NBA dream, however. He signed April 6 with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have two guards – Kyrie Irving and C.J. Miles – recovering from injuries. Although the Cavs liked him enough to give him a rest-of-the-season contract instead of the standard 10-day deal, Hopson has been assigned to the Canton Charge of the NBA Developmental League.
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