Jarnell Stokes stood in front of reporters Friday afternoon looking confident of a decision that has been looming since he first stepped his size-20 shoes on the University of Tennessee campus.
"After a lot of prayer and deliberation, I have made the decision to forego my senior season and enter the NBA draft," Stokes announced. "I want to thank Tennessee for making these last three years so special. I feel like I definitely grew up and became a man here.
"I will always be a Vol For Life."
The junior power forward leaves Knoxville after a three-year career that started with sky-high expectations of the consensus top-20 recruit, and will end ranking up there among the greatest careers in Tennessee basketball history.
He finishes as the program's all-time offensive rebounding leader, fourth all-time in double-doubles, eighth in rebounding, 14th in blocks and 41st in scoring.
Stokes also set three single-season program records last season, in which he averaged 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, took home first-team All-SEC honors and led the Vols on an improbable Sweet 16 run as a No. 11 seed.
After that, the decision wasn't a tough one.
"It's probably best that I enter," Stokes said. "I feel like my stock is high right now. It's probably as high as it'll ever be, unless I come out next year playing like LeBron (James), and that probably won't happen."
When he nearly left for the NBA last offseason, Stokes pointed toward some criticism of his game he received from NBA personnel. This time around, he's heard nothing but affirmations—whether it be from scouts, agents, coaches or even former Vol and NBA player Tobias Harris—to make the move.
Everyone excluding those in orange, of course.
"I really don't think one person other than Vol fans told me to return," Stokes said. "No one told me. I even talked to numerous people who are involved in the NBA, and they said your best chance of making the NBA team is now.'"
Despite emerging as a player who will likely be drafted and crack a NBA roster, Stokes still feels like there is plenty to prove.
The 6-foot-8 Memphis native focused more on improving the team than putting his NBA-caliber skills on display. However, he made it clear that will be changing when he heads to his NBA workouts.
"People are so caught up in the way I played in college, to the point where they feel like maybe some things don't translate," Stokes said. "I definitely had to be a dominant presence in the paint for the University of Tennessee in order for us to succeed. I sacrificed some things for the team.
"I felt like I could've taken more jump shots and maybe put the ball behind my back more—maybe did more 'ooo-ahh' plays to let scouts know I'm skilled. But I had to sacrifice for the team, like I said."
Stokes' career at UT began before his high school classmates even got their diplomas, graduating a semester early from Memphis' Southwind High School.
That paved the way for him to get half a season under his belt in a stunted freshman campaign, when he worked his way into the starting rotation and averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds.
As a sophomore, Stokes averaged 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game en route to second-team All-SEC honors.
That season was enough to make Stokes seriously consider making the jump. But after hearing head coach Cuonzo Martin say both that he wasn't ready and that the 2013-14 team could make a deep NCAA tournament run, he opted to return for his junior year.
This offseason, however, the tune was noticeably different from Martin—indicating the 6-foot-8 power forward is ready this time around.
"Last year, he was somewhat more demanding of me coming back," Stokes said of Martin. "This year, I called him maybe two games after we had lost, and I said 'coach, I really feel like I should enter the draft.' And he said, 'are you uncertain?' I said, 'you know, I'm going back and forth but I'm leaning toward entering the draft.'
"And he said, 'you need to be certain. You need to be sure before you make a big decision like this, because the NBA is an animal.'"
Then on Tuesday, five days after that conversation, Stokes walked into Martin's office "more confident than ever of my decision" and told his coach of his intentions.
Stokes' announcement Friday marked the fourth starter that Martin's Vols will lose from their Sweet 16 run. Stokes joins senior starters Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon and Antonio Barton. Senior reserve D'Montre Edwards also leaves, and Quinton Chievous will transfer.
Martin will now be stuck with the task of replacing more than 74 percent of his team's scoring and 70 percent of its rebounding as Josh Richardson is the only returning starter.
But ask Stokes, and it doesn't look all gloom and doom for the Vols—even if he was stuck wondering what might have been.
"I really feel like if I would've came back, we definitely would've made noise again in the tournament," Stokes said. "But those guys are focused.
"I worked out with them yesterday, and it was the most focused I've ever seen a workout here at Tennessee."