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Young Stokes is confident his game will only improve

By Ferd Lewis

LAST UPDATED: 5:26 a.m. HST, Nov 12, 2011

With 38 seconds left in a 2-point exhibition game the University of Hawaii men’s basketball team was desperately trying to hold onto, senior Zane Johnson wrapped a brotherly arm around freshman point guard Shaquille Stokes.

Then Johnson said he whispered: “You have the opportunity to win this game for us. You can’t put your head down. This is college basketball and stuff is gonna happen. Just keep thinking ahead to the next play and good things will happen.”

Yes, welcome to Division I basketball, where even those with an all-star resume experience growing pains.

Stokes, the most celebrated UH freshman recruit since “Mr. Iowa Basketball” Chris Gaines in 1986, shook off his struggles, converted both free throws and came up with a steal and an assist in the final 18 seconds to help the Rainbow Warriors hold off Hawaii Pacific 62-56.

It was a night when Stokes, the high-profile recruit from Brooklyn, N.Y., who was greeted by loud applause during pregame introductions, alternated flashes of brilliance and streaks of freshmanitis. There were both blink-quick cuts to the basket and head-shaking casts from afar. There were intuitive passes that brought knowing nods of appreciation from the crowd and ones that sailed past the bench earning him a seat there in short order.

On the way to 11 points there was 2-of-10 shooting from the field to go with four assists and six turnovers in 35 minutes.

In short, there was a lot to like about Stokes and plenty to look forward to. But there were also cautionary reminders that he is still a freshman. Or as head coach Gib Arnold told an interviewer, “Give him some time, he’s a really talented guy.”

But if Johnson — or anybody in the crowd of 3,806 — was concerned about Stokes leaving the Stan Sheriff Center with his head burrowed in his chest or mind in the past, they shouldn’t be. “Monday is going to be a lot different,” Stokes pledged, head up and eyes bright.

The ’Bows open their regular season Monday against Cal State Northridge on ESPN and Stokes said, “I’m going to be a lot calmer. I’m going to settle down. It is gonna be a better performance. Monday night is going to be a totally different story.”

To his credit, Stokes isn’t buying the give-him-time qualifiers. He isn’t retreating behind the I’m-only-a-freshman label.

“I don’t want to play like a freshman,” Stokes said. “Out there (on the floor) I want to play more like a junior. That’s what I put on myself. I’m gonna get better. You’re going to see the better Shaquille Stokes,” he said.

Sounding all the while like anything but a freshman.

Reach Ferd Lewis at or 529-4820.

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