Can Jarnell Stokes power his way into the first round of the NBA draft?
What kind of chess player might Jarnell Stokes have become? Projecting that is difficult, maybe even impossible. Chess-db.com has record of Stokes playing in 38 tournaments between the ages of 6 and 11, mostly around Memphis, where he grew up, and the site lists his national elo rating as 920 -- OK for a beginner, but a far cry from "child prodigy." As Stokes become nationally elite in a different sport -- basketball -- he had less and less time for anything else, so we'll never know what would've happened had he specialized in chess instead. The extent of his chess experience during college, while he starred at power forward for Tennessee, was occasional visits to a chess club at a local Wendy's restaurant.
He claimed to be able to "beat almost all" of the regulars, but the club doesn't keep a database of its pickup games. There's an inadequate amount of statistics to size up Stokes as a chess-playing adult.
Projecting what kind of NBA player Stokes might become should be easier. There's an abundance of recent, quality data relevant to his stock in the 2014 draft. College rebounding rates, especially on the offensive glass, tend to translate well to the pros, and as a junior in '13-14, Stokes had the best offensive rebounding percentage (15.1) of any power forward who is in consideration to be a first-round pick.
Having early success in college is also a strong indicator of pro potential. In Stokes' age-19 (sophomore) season at Tennessee, he posted rebound rates that compared favorably with those of glass-cleaning power forwards who've recently found roles in the NBA. Stokes, in fact, had a better offensive rebounding percentage at 19 than did Kevin Love, Kenneth Faried, Paul Millsap, Blake Griffin, Jared Sullinger and Julius Randle in their college seasons at that age:
This is promising data -- so why isn't Stokes being considered as a lottery pick in this week's NBA draft? Various mock drafts have him going in the back end of the first round or early in the second, and evaluators' reservations are three-fold. To start, Stokes' 8-foot-8 reach was the lowest of any power forward at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. His measurements (and vertical) aren't bad when compared to the same group in the previous chart, but Stokes still has the shortest reach, and it could be an issue against NBA front lines:
Analytics-minded general managers might also be concerned about Stokes' low steal and block rates, which declined in each of his three seasons with the Volunteers. And then there's his limited offensive potential: While he excelled at using his bruising, 262-pound frame to create space and finish at point-blank range or on put-backs, he struggled to make even mid-range jumpers. Here's how Stokes' 19-year-old true shooting percentages and block and steal rates compare with that group:
Stokes is pretty much the opposite of a "stretch four," and some scouts have even taken to calling him an undersized center due to his skillset. I prefer to group Stokes with power forwards as a rebounding specialist; his selling point has always been his work on the glass, and in that department he meets the stats test, eye test and mentality test. In a pre-draft Q&A with Slam, he said:
"I was in a meeting with a team recently and they asked me, “What do you enjoy most about the game?” And honestly, what excites me the most is demoralizing a team by allowing my team to have numerous possessions. I love to extend possessions for my team with offensive rebounds."
Stokes had more offensive boards per 40 minutes than any 2014 draft prospect despite having to share rebounds with teammate Jeronne Maymon, the other physically imposing half of the front line that helped Tennessee reach the Sweet 16. Together, they played demoralizing games of backboard-ball at close range.
In 2012-13, while Maymon was sitting out with an injury, Stokes posted incredible offensive/defensive rebounding percentages of 17.3/22.3, and he followed that up with 15.1/23.2 as a junior. I could only find seven major-conference power forwards from the past decade who broke the 16/22 mark while playing at least 50 percent of their team's minutes. Here's a comparison of their career numbers, with ages:
But being a phenomenal college rebounder is no guarantee of pro success for a power forward. Former Pitt star DeJuan Blair, a solid reserve for the Mavs last season, and ex-Duke Blue Devil Miles Plumlee, who had a middling career in Durham but has found a role with the Suns, are the only ones still in the NBA.
What helps is if the success comes early (as Blair's and Stokes' did), and if you have strong steal and block rates, too (as Blair did but Stokes did not), or if you're just a total freak athlete (as Plumlee is). Without respect to age, Stokes' wingspan/reach/vertical profile is closest to that of ex-North Carolina big man Sean May, who now plays in France. Stokes' overall statistical profile is closest in line with former Notre Dame bruiser Jack Cooley, who's now in Turkey. If you're optimistic about Stokes, you peg him as a DeJuan Blair with better knees and explosiveness, or, if he adds a jumper, David West. If you're pessimistic about Stokes, you forecast a future in the Euroleague.
It's funny how picking apart one late first-rounder -- falling in and out of love with him on the basis of numbers and comparisons -- can cause you to start liking someone with even lower draft stock. Once Indiana's Noah Vonleh, Kentucky's Julius Randle, Arizona's Aaron Gordon, Michigan State's Adreian Payne and Stokes are off the board, there should be one guy left who rates well in the categories of immediate college success, rebounding and steal percentages, size, motor and offensive ability, especially as a pick-and-roll finisher: Michigan's Mitch McGary.
Although he started college at age 20, McGary's freshman year (2012-13) stacks up reasonably well against Stokes' 20-year-old junior campaign from this past season:
And although the age difference gives him an unfair advantage here, McGary's freshman season looks good against Randle's and Vonleh's:
McGary played slightly less than 50 percent of the Wolverines' minutes (48.8) as a freshman, but he was a hyperactive force, especially when he shed weight and had an awakening during their run to the 2013 national title game. His six-game numbers from that NCAA tournament were comparable to what Kevin Love and Jared Sullinger posted during their freshman seasons, when they were national player of the year candidates.
But McGary has his own drawbacks. The only reason the ex-Wolverine is in the draft is because he tested positive for marijuana during the NCAA tournament, while serving as a de facto cheerleader on Michigan's bench. Rather than serve a (draconian) one-year suspension, he opted to turn pro. The reason he was cheerleading, rather than playing, in the 2014 NCAAs is because he chose to have back surgery in January after playing just eight games as a sophomore. McGary's long recovery process led him to miss the draft combine and do very little auditioning for NBA teams; his first workout wasn't until Friday, with the Bucks.
There's uncertainty surrounding the long-term health of McGary's back, but for a team whose doctors believe he'll make a full recovery, he's an ideal buy-low candidate. A little more than a year ago, he was helping Michigan come within a few possessions of a national championship. A strong sophomore season would've kept him on a lottery pick trajectory. Now, McGary finds himself on the fringe of the first round, and the first power forward likely to go off the board is Vonleh, whose Indiana team went 17-15 and didn't even make the NIT.
Yet Vonleh's place in the top five of a loaded-but-imperfect draft makes sense. He put up impressive numbers as an 18-year-old frosh, has the biggest wingspan and reach of the power forwards, has three-point shooting range -- and he's healthy. He's not the best rebounder or athlete of the group, but he's the easiest to envision fitting in the NBA, as a stretch-four. His size and skill set is almost perfectly projectable.
(Advanced stats for this story are from kenpom.com, while pre-draft measurements are from DraftExpress.)