WASHINGTON, D.C. — Marcus Smart isn’t the only member of the USA U19 team who spurned the NBA Draft to remain in college.
Jarnell Stokes, the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder from Tennessee, also opted to return to campus for his junior season.
Now Stokes wants to team up with Smart and win a gold medal for the U.S. at the FIBA U19 World Championship in Prague from June 27-July 7.
“[Smart] deserves a lot of credit for not being one of those prima donna guys that feel like they can’t play for their country,” Stokes told SNY.tv after U19 practice Thursday at the Verizon Center. “So I definitely applaud him and I want to make him feel better about his decision by bringing him a gold medal.”
Like the 6-4 Smart, the U19 and Oklahoma State point guard who was projected as the No. 2 pick in the 2013 Draft, Stokes opted to return to campus to develop his game.
“I was definitely considering it, but I wanted to work on my shooting, my overall game, just get better,” Stokes said. “Show guys that I can get in better shape, too.”
The presence of college veterans like Stokes and Smart on the roster is one reason head coach Billy Donovan is optimistic about this team, although the U19s have won only one gold medal since 1995 — in 2009.
“I think our guys understand what they’re up against and it will be a great challenge for the time that we’re there,” Donovan told SNY.tv.
Stokes is in his second year playing under Donovan, who, as the head man at Florida, is an SEC rival. Stokes averaged 14.0 points and 5.6 rebounds while playing for Donovan last summer on the U18 team that won FIBA Americas gold.
“He coached me last year so I’m sort of used to him now,” Stokes said of Donovan.
Five members of the U18 team are back on the U19 squad, but it also features newcomers like 6-10 high school senior Jahlil Okafor of Chicago Whitney Young, whom Stokes has been banging with in the post during practices.
“To have a guy that young, he’s catching on pretty well,” Stokes said of Okafor. “I think I sort of outsmart him in certain aspects, catch him off guard a lot. But he’s just as strong as guys in D-1 basketball.”
He added of Okafor: “He’s one of the best scorers as far as his size in the post. He’s a very talented player. He’ll be really good when he matures.”
Okafor, meantime, says he’s getting better playing against Stokes.
“It’s making me a lot better,” Okafor, who was named MVP of the U17 World Championship last year, told SNY.tv. “It’s giving me a lot more confidence. I’m able to score on them makes me feel like I can score on any other high school player, so being here has been a real confidence-booster for me.”
Stokes averaged 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds and was a second-team All-SEC performer last season, but wants to make a big jump next year with the Vols.
“It will help me a lot,” he said of the USA experience. “It will keep me in shape, just getting advice from these coaches will help a lot. Just having this on my resume means a lot, playing with the USA.
“I plan to do a lot more [next year]. I plan to run the floor harder, just play harder. Also hitting shots. There’s a lot more things that I was disappointed last year.”
Stokes said he heard criticism of his shooting and conditioning last year, and that was a major reason he opted to return to campus.
He’s currently projected as a late-first round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft by DraftExpress.com.
As for Tennessee, the Vols return Jeronne Maymon, Jordan McRae and Trae Golden, and also bring in five-star shooting guard Robert Hubbs of Tennessee.
“We have a good inside presence with Jeronne coming back,” he said. “Outside, we got shooters coming in.”
Asked about Kentucky’s loaded 2013 class that includes Stokes’ former U18 teammate Julius Randle, Stokes said, “I think they’ll be a very good team, but they still have a lot to prove. They’re still youngsters compared to us, so they still have a lot to prove.”
For now, Stokes just wants to prove he can win gold.
**For more coverage of the USA U19 and U16 teams, click here.Follow Adam Zagoria on TwitterAnd like ZAGS on Facebook
Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.