KNOXVILLE - Like any young kid playing basketball, Jarnell Stokes had his favorite NBA player growing up.
For Tennessee's sophomore forward, it was then-Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony.
Naturally, Stokes wanted to play like Anthony, the five-time All-Star with the New York Knicks who's a pure inside-out scorer.
He admitted to playing like that in high school, but the half-season stint with the Volunteers last season after finishing high school early proved to him that he should embrace a different identity.
"I feel like in high school I hadn't really found myself," he said. "Maybe I was wanted to shoot 3s or dribble up the court, or maybe I was watching too many Carmelo Anthony highlights. I feel like now, I've really found myself, just being here, playing in the SEC and going through this offseason.
"I feel like I've found what I love to do, and that's bury guys in the post. That's what I love doing, that's where I can score the most and that's what I'm going to do. I will do that more this year."
This year starts tonight, when Tennessee tips off Cuonzo Martin's second season as coach against Kennesaw State in Knoxville. With fellow forward Jeronne Maymon still sidelined after suffering a setback in his recovery from a second offseason knee surgery, Stokes' importance to the Volunteers increased.
The five-star recruit was a hit during his freshman season, and his arrival correlated with Tennessee's late charge to the SEC's No. 2 seed. The 6-foot-8, 270-pounder from Memphis averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds in 17 games last winter, and the league's coaches recognized his talents by naming him to the SEC's preseason all-conference first team.
Yet the Vols expect a much improved player from a number of perspectives.
"I think you'll see an entirely different player than what you saw last year," assistant coach Jon Harris said. "He was kind of thrown into the fire last year and really had to take his lumps on the fly. This year, obviously, he has a better understanding for what we expect and what to expect from himself and what the competition's going to bring.
"He's done a great job with is body. Physically he's slimmed down some; he's really moving a lot better, jumping better, running the floor better. He's really progressed, and he'll be a much improved player this year."
Martin said Tennessee's offseason focus with Stokes was improving his perimeter shot, back-to-the-basket game in the post and his quickness to help him defend better. Stokes said this preseason his conditioning is vastly better. Limiting his turnovers (two per game) and improving his free-throw shooting (57 percent) are two other areas of improvement from a year ago.
With Maymon sidelined, the Vols will need another go-to player, and Stokes and point guard Trae Golden are the likely top two candidates. Tennessee has depth in its frontcourt and backcourt and some quality role players. Martin's team will defend as usual, and the motion offense should be improved in its second season.
After an offseason to adapt, learn the ins and outs of the college game and Martin's system and fine-tune his game, Stokes knows his role and knows the expectations have been raised.
"Now that he has almost a year under his belt and a whole summer with us and a whole preseason with us, his game has just gotten better," center Kenny Hall said. "He's gotten bigger and stronger and quicker and a lot more explosive. You're going to see a maniac out there, a monster."