Jarnell Stokes climbed out of the totaled Town car and squinted into the light, attempting to get his bearings. This couldn’t possibly be how it ends, could it?
Not at the hands of a hit-and-run driver. Not when he was on his way to the airport for his first workout with an NBA team — and not just any team, the defending champion Miami Heat. Not because, after all his hard work and attention to detail, he’d let his guard down by not wearing his seatbelt.
With his white T-shirt soaked with blood and a sore knee, a dark thought crossed Stokes’ mind: Will I still be able to play basketball?
“I had invested so much,” Stokes said by phone on Friday. “I was able to dominate at the combine. I’d worked on my body — I’d lost 5-10 pounds — and I’d improved my shot. I was excited to showcase these things in the workouts. And I saw my Draft dreams coming to a close.”
The former Tennessee star ran to the front of the rented sedan and helped the driver get out. Then, disoriented from what he’d later learn was a concussion, he started jumping up and down and running around, attempting to reassure himself that the accident hadn’t robbed him of his ability to do what he loves.
His first phone call was to his little brother Isaiah, an up-and-coming player in his own right – just to tell him to put his seatbelt on. He then called his agent, Travis King, and asked him to get another ride so he could continue to Miami.
That was a little ambitious. As a result of his concussion, Stokes was sensitive to light, couldn’t remember things people told him and was unable to walk in a straight line. The doctors said he should sit out a month, which would cost him his golden opportunity to showcase his game to NBA teams.
For Jarnell, that obviously wouldn’t do. He rested as much as he could for the next few days, and then proceeded to pass all the protocols. His knee felt fine. Never mind a month, Stokes was cleared to work out again after one week.
As such, he received his chance to show out for the Heat — not to mention the Bulls, the Clippers, the Thunder and a host of other teams. And with a renewed perspective on how lucky he had been to still be in this position, he planned to make the most of his opportunity.
“I feel like some workouts, I’ve been able to dominate top players that are so-called ‘ranked ahead of me,’” Stokes said. “My stamina isn’t where it was before the crash, but it’s better than what it should be.
“For the most part, knowing I had a car wreck three weeks ago, I couldn’t have asked for it to go better.”
When you consider where he grew up — the famously tough Whitehaven area of Memphis – it makes sense Stokes didn’t let the trivial matter of a devastating accident get in his way.
“I was robbed when I was younger — a lot,” Stokes said, “So that made me somewhat aware of my surroundings. It basically gave me a tough exterior, not including my body size. Mentally, it’s made me tough. I don’t feel like anyone in any game could punk me.”
His parents kept him on the strait and narrow — especially his dad, Willie, a Navy veteran, who shielded his son from Whitehaven’s gangs and drugs and kept him on the path to a better life. From a young age, Willie instituted 4:45 a.m. wakeup calls for workouts. He forced him to eat right, and he demanded that he stick with basketball despite the fact that Jarnell, in his own estimation, wasn’t initially all that good.
At first, Jarnell bristled at his father’s tough love approach. He started a regimen of pushups when he was 11 years old for the purpose of getting big enough to someday fight his dad.
But over time, he began to realize his father had his best interests at heart. He now considers him his best friend — no need for fisticuffs. And when the 5 a.m. workouts were no longer mandated, Jarnell continued them on his own, painstakingly transforming himself into one of the top recruits in the country.
Halfway through his senior year, Jarnell determined he was ready for college ball — immediately. He graduated a semester early, joined the Volunteers midseason and scored nine points in his first game against none other than Anthony Davis and Kentucky. Two games later, he erupted for 16 and 12 in an upset victory over defending champion Connecticut.
“I wanted to be challenged, and I wanted to be pushed more,” Stokes said. “It’s similar to the situation right now. Coming out of school early, I feel like I’m ready.”
A classic 6-foot-9, 260-pound power forward, Stokes played somewhat out of position at center most of the time at Tennessee. His toughness and motor helped him more than hold his own against bigger names like Florida’s Patric Young and UK’s Julius Randle, and he developed into a monster on the boards.
In some ways, Stokes is a throwback to a grittier age; he recently watched the documentary on the Bad Boys-era Pistons, and he could see himself fitting right in. A defensive end growing up, he pursues loose balls with the intensity and tenacity with which he chased down quarterbacks. During the playoffs, he studied bruisers like David West, Carlos Boozer and Zach Randolph.
“I love to see teams get down on themselves, and I love to see a coach get on their big men because they can’t keep me off the glass,” Stokes said. “It kind of shows I’m not in basketball for glamour or fame. I’m there to do the dirty work that teams need.”
At the same time, Stokes — who played a more perimeter-oriented game in high school — believes he has more than just grunt work to offer. That’s why he decided after making the All-SEC first team and leading Tennessee to the Sweet 16, where they narrowly lost to Michigan, that it was time to show off his entire arsenal.
“When I got to college, I did what was best for the team,” Stokes said. “But now people are surprised with some of the things I’ve been able to do in workouts. I’ve extended my range to the three-point line, and that’s blowing away teams. I’ve heard comparisons to a guy like Paul Millsap, who came into the league as a rebounder and developed his game to become an All-Star.”
With analysts like ESPN’s Chad Ford calling him the best rebounder in the Draft, Stokes has improved his stock from the mid-second round to the late first, most likely somewhere in the 20’s. A personal highlight was when he worked out for the Grizzlies, a team Jarnell used to watch from the rafters as a kid, and made a strong impression on his hometown team.
“You don’t want to just fall in love with somebody’s body as an athlete, but he’s got a great body,” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said after Stokes’ workout. “He brings other things to the party, too…Jarnell Stokes is going to have a place in the NBA, I think, for a long time. I don’t know what his role will end up being, but as a young guy I think his best basketball is ahead of him.”
Rest assured, Stokes is aware of how close he came to that not being the case. And with his seatbelt securely fastened, there’s nothing left to do but enjoy the ride.
“It was devastating at the time, but now I’m able to look back on it and realize I was blessed to walk out of there alive,” Stokes said. “All I need is a chance — a chance to go show a team I can make them better. I’m just really looking forward to it.”
Where does Jarnell end up tonight?
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