Wiedmer: Vols' Jarnell Stokes has shot at NBA first round

Wiedmer: Vols' Jarnell Stokes has shot at NBA first round

June 26th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes shoots during practice for the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal college basketball tournament game in Indianapolis.

Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes shoots during practice for the...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Check out the latest edition on NBADraft.net and you'll find former University of Tennessee post player Jarnell Stokes going to Philadelphia with the 47th overall pick in tonight's NBA draft. Search DraftExpress.com and Stokes is projected to go 26th to Miami with former Volunteers teammate Jordan McRae slotted for 59th to Toronto.

Visit cbssports.com and that website has Stokes going anywhere from 26th to 28th.

Said Stokes on the Bleacher Report website earlier this week: "I feel like I can help a team by doing the little things that winning teams need in order to become a great team -- rebounding, toughness, just that mindset that I bring to the game."

There is both much intrigue and much talent sprinkled throughout tonight's draft, which just might be the deepest in memory, possibly going back to the spectacular 1984 draft that ushered Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Akeem Olajuwon, Michael Cage and John Stockton into the league.

And for anyone who might have forgotten that Kentucky's oft-injured Sam Bowie went ahead of MJ in that draft, there's a potential replay of that much-maligned decision by the Portland Trail Blazers with this year's Joel Embiid, whose murky medical profile calls to mind Bowie's leg troubles both before and after the draft.

Anyone drafting the raw yet talented 7-footer must strongly consider whether Embiid can become the next Olajuwon -- whose videos Embiid often studied as a Cameroon teenager -- or whether he's more likely to mirror Bowie or, even worse, Greg Oden, who's been hurt pretty much from the start of his NBA career seven years ago.

So if you're the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight, it's quite a decision on whether to spend the overall No. 1 pick on Embiid, who could become the next Olajuwon once his broken foot heals, or on his former Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins, who many believe has Jordan talent, or the ex-Duke star Jabari Parker, who's a taller version of longtime pro Paul Pierce, one of the more polished offensive talents the league has seen the past 15 years.

If all of those three have successful 10-year careers, Embiid seems the talent most likely to move the Cavaliers out of mediocrity. But Wiggins appears the safest pick, especially if Cleveland could somehow entice LeBron James to return. Wiggins has James-type explosiveness and height and he's a better defensive player at the same age. And there's never been a hint of concern about his health.

But if Stokes isn't a threat to fog Cleveland's top pick further, he certainly is moving up a lot of draft boards at the last minute well enough that he could become the Vols' first first-rounder since Tobias Harris in 2011.

For starters, his height and weight at the NBA combine were better than most predicted. He checked in at 6-foot-8.5 and 263 pounds consisting of 8.2 percent body fat.

Both taller and more chiseled than many suspected, Stokes also has impressed scouts with his overall quickness, outside shooting and ball-handling, which wasn't always on display at UT.

Perhaps that's why former UT coach Cuonzo Martin offered this quote regarding his best recruit: "From a perception standpoint, when you watch him from afar, you don't see it all. I knew once he got into those workouts, it was just a matter of time."

Timing is everything for Stokes, whose impressive workouts following the combine were delayed for 10 days following a car crash. A spot in the first round would give him guaranteed money. A second-round selection guarantees nothing, which is why his ex-teammate McRae might be better off to go undrafted, then sign as a free agent with a team that sees potential in him from day one.

Yet Stokes reportedly began to be wanted for first-round consideration after outplaying Michigan State product Adreian Payne -- who most consider a first-round lock, even a lottery pick -- in a pro workout. He's now supposed to be on a short list of at least nine teams: Houston, Utah, Memphis, Chicago, Toronto, the Los Angeles Clippers, Miami, Phoenix and Oklahoma City.

"And I will not be a liability on offense," he said in the BR interview, in case anyone is worried about his outside shooting.

Truth is, Stokes averaged a double-double for his junior season at UT, posting even better numbers during the Vols' surprising NCAA tournament run, where Stokes finished with averages of 18 points and 12.8 rebounds in his four tourney games. His free-throw shooting improved -- especially in the last four minutes of games, when he hit over 72 percent -- as did his fitness thanks to an intense conditioning program and better diet.

"I tried to overpower people my sophomore year," he said during the season. "I realized I needed more quickness and stamina to make it to the next level."

He gets his shot at the next level tonight, and most believe he could go anywhere from No. 19 (Chicago) to his hometown favorite Memphis Grizzlies (22) to Miami (26) or the Clippers (28).

Once thought too slow and too soft, he's now drawing comparisons to the Indiana Pacers' David West and the Atlanta Hawks' Paul Millsap, two of the most respected and versatile strong men in the NBA.

"I take pride in Memphis," Stokes said this week. "I feel it gave me a tough exterior, and my mentality toward the basket portrays where I've come from. A lot of guys my size, it's hard to get them to have a tough mindset when attacking the basket. I say this all the time: It doesn't matter how athletic you are, it's about your mentality."

Some would say that perfectly describes the league's newest champs -- the San Antonio Spurs. If pro scouts have determined that Stokes' mind can give him a similar edge, he should have a guaranteed contract by the close of tonight's first round.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com