KNOXVILLE -- For the better part of three years, the thought of playing in the NBA bounced around the headbanded head of Jarnell Stokes.
The Tennessee forward now begins his pursuit of turning his long-time dream into his reality.
Fresh off a productive All-SEC junior season, Stokes announced Friday afternoon he would forgo his senior season with the Volunteers in favor of entering June's NBA draft, even though he's far from a lock for the first round in what will be a historically deep pool of players.
"I didn't really think about it during the season," Stokes said at his news conference inside Pratt Pavilion. "I was definitely focused during the March period, and I felt like a lot of players are thinking about it during the season, and it's almost like they have already declared in January when the season isn't even over.
"I was definitely able to focus on this season and make a great run."
Stokes had a big hand in Tennessee turning a disappointing regular season into an NCAA tournament surge to the Sweet 16, where the Vols lost to Michigan in a game in which Stokes was called for charging with Tennessee down 72-71 and less than 10 seconds left.
The 6-foot-8, 260-pounder from Memphis joined the Vols midway through Cuonzo Martin's first year as coach after he graduated a semester early from high school. He was ruled ineligible to play basketball his senior season following a transfer the previous summer and averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds as a 19-year-old college freshman.
After averages of 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds as a sophomore, Stokes scored 15.1 points and grabbed 10.6 rebounds per game this season. He tied Tennessee legend Bernard King's single-season record with 22 double-doubles, which ranked second nationally behind Kentucky freshman Julius Randle, a sure-fire lottery pick should he declare for the draft.
Former Vol Tobias Harris, who left after his freshman season and now plays for the Orlando Magic, told Stokes to "go while you're hot," and even Martin told Stokes he should enter the draft.
"Last year, he said, 'Jarnell, you should definitely come back,'" Stokes said. "Next year we'll have the chance to make the Elite Eight.' That was our goal this year, to make the Elite Eight. Through all the struggles and games lost, our goal was always to make the Elite Eight. He said that last year he was somewhat, I guess, more demanding of me coming back.
"This year, I called him maybe two days after we had lost and said, 'Coach, I really feel like I should enter the draft.' He said, 'Are you uncertain?' I said, 'I'm going back and forth, but I'm leaning toward entering the draft.' He said you need to be certain and you need to be sure before you make a big decision like this, because the NBA is an animal."
Five days later, on Tuesday of this week, Stokes told Martin he was leaving.
"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, who is on the road recruiting, said in a released statement.
"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. I know this wasn't an easy decision for him, but his goal has always been to be a pro, and he's worked incredibly hard to put that goal within reach.
"We all support him and know he'll be a great representative of Tennessee basketball at the next level. It's my hope that he'll eventually return to Tennessee and graduate, and he knows we'll do everything we can to support him when that time comes."
Though he made clear improvement this past season, it's unlikely Stokes would have changed his stock by staying another year. At this point he is what he is: a smallish 6-8 forward who's not an above-the-rim player and lacks a consistent jump shot. The comparisons he's heard of himself include Carlos Boozer, Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes and Reggie Evans.
"Last year, I probably would've been mad," he said. "Now I look at it, and the reality is the first 43 draft picks usually get signed. No, I won't be happy with the second round. I'd definitely use it as a chip, because I feel like I'm one of the best power forwards in the country.
"I felt like there's certain things I wasn't able to show in college that I can do and will be able to do at the next level."
Stokes also spoke of the "struggles" of being a college athlete and said there were times it was hard for him to pay his cell phone bill or car insurance while seeing T-shirts bearing his name and number or his jersey on sale at a mall.
Stokes' early entry and the loss of senior starters Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon and Antonio Barton mean Tennessee must replace nearly 70 percent of its scoring off this year's team. Josh Richardson will be the Vols' leading returning scorer (10 ppg) and the team's undisputed vocal leader.
"I enjoyed being here so much," Stokes said, "but it's really hard to turn down something you've chased all your life."
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