Tennessee rising sophomore power forward Jarnell Stokes recently returned from an experience of a lifetime.

On June 20, Stokes helped lead the USA Basketball Men's U18 National Team to a gold medal during the 2012 FIBA Americas Championship in Brazil.

"It was a great experience," he said. "Being able to represent your country is something guys don't do a lot. It's every kid's dream."

The only player on the 12-man U.S. squad with college-playing experience, Stokes' presence was a major factor for the team. He started all five of the team's games, averaging 14 points, second-best on the squad, and 5.6 rebounds per contest. In the gold medal game against the host country Brazil, he scored 11 points and grabbed four rebounds.

While winning gold was a great feeling, the time Stokes spent representing his country and meeting the people of Brazil had a lasting affect on him.

"Although we beat them in Brazil, in their home, they showed us nothing but love," he said. "They were asking for autographs afterwards and taking all our clothes. It was something that a lot of guys don't experience at my age."

Unsure of what to expect on foreign soil, Stokes took it as an opportunity to learn and grow as a basketball player.

"I had no idea what it would be like," Stokes said. "I had never left the country so in my mind, (the trip) was just to learn the most I could."

Being his first trip out of the U.S., much of the experience was new to him. Oddly enough, the change in dining struck him more than anything.
"The food was definitely different," Stokes said. "There wasn't a McDonald's around or any American food so I was basically eating rice."

Stokes became just the second Vol to play in the event, joining Allan Houston, UT's all-time leading scorer, who played on the U.S.'s gold medal team in 1990 when the event was called the Junior World Championship Qualifier.

As he looks forward to his first full season with the Vols, Stokes' experience with the national team makes him much more confident in his ability as a leader. More importantly, he feels the bond between his UT teammates growing even stronger.

"I'm more of a leader now," he said. "I feel like I have a great relationship with my teammates. I kept in contact with them through this whole process so I'm just looking forward to this next year."

For Stokes, he'll use the remaining part of his summer to prepare for his second season with the Vols.

"My next step will be getting in the best shape I can," Stokes said.