KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jarnell Stokes' first week at Tennessee was full of new experiences. There were conditioning programs, film study, his first attempts to play sound defense and the challenges of finding his way around campus.
And don't forget the thrilling debut to his collegiate basketball career against No. 2 Kentucky.
"I plan to build off of that and watch film — something that I haven't been used to doing — and learn some defensive plays," Stokes said. "I'm not going to give any excuses. We're all on the college level."
Few might blame the Memphis native if he used his youth as an excuse for just a little while since most of his peers are still in high school. Stokes would be there too had he not pushed to graduate high school a semester early.
Ranked among the top 25 prospects in the nation for 2012 by multiple recruiting services, the 6-foot-8 Stokes signed with Tennessee on Dec. 23. He played in his first game, a 65-62 loss to the Wildcats on Saturday, just five days after his first practice at Tennessee and a week after his 18th birthday.
"I just told him, 'If there's one guy, shoot the ball. If there's two guys, a double-team, pass the ball. If it's one-on-one, make plays,'" coach Cuonzo Martin said.
Stokes was so new to the program that he didn't even get to take the court in orange shoes like the rest of the Vols. His special-order, size-20 shoes hadn't arrived in Knoxville yet.
The Wildcats struggled to guard Stokes, who hit a hook shot on his very first offensive possession. Even with little knowledge of the playbook, the 250-pound power forward muscled his way around Kentucky's heralded post players and finished 4 of 5 from the field for nine points, with four rebounds in 17 minutes.
"Jarnell Stokes makes them way better," Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Martin had been hesitant at first to play Stokes so soon after he arrived on campus. He didn't want to stunt Stokes' growth as a player by putting him in too many situations where it would be difficult to succeed.
After all, Stokes hadn't played much since he played for the USA Midwest team in the Nike Global Challenge in early August. He transferred from Memphis' Central High to Southwind High for his senior year, unaware that the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association would force him to sit out a season from basketball for doing so.
The absence of basketball led him to work toward early graduation. He entertained offers from Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Memphis, but Tennessee was able to offer a scholarship for the remainder of the 2011-12 season and therefore a chance to play immediately.
"I feel like I'm sort of behind, and I've got a lot of catching up to do, and I'm trying to jam it in as soon as possible," Stokes said. "It's been nonstop. My whole day, my whole schedule is trying to get adjusted to college. It's definitely worth it. I feel great now."
Stokes' hunger to play and effort in practice convince Martin that it would be OK for him to take the floor against Kentucky, and the coach said Stokes' minutes would increase with better conditioning and an understanding of how to play tough defense. The Vols (8-9, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) face Georgia (9-8, 0-3) on Wednesday in Athens.
In the meantime, Stokes' new teammates are doing everything they can to make sure he will succeed.
"From a play standpoint, he didn't know a lot of them, even though he's very intelligent. So I think it's a credit to the guys who were on the floor with him and put him in good situations to make plays," Martin said.
Even before he has a complete grasp of college ball, Stokes can prove to be a solid complement to Tennessee's front court of Jeronne Maymon and Kenny Hall, especially on offense where he can either draw double-teams or make plays when the other two are guarded.
"I thought Jeronne was big until Jarnell came in. He makes Jeronne look normal," Hall said. "It's funny, as big as he is, he's still a kid. He's still got the baby-faced look, but he's a man out there in the paint and we're going to expect big things from him this season."