There has been a common theme in the circuitous journey Kamau Stokes took from Baltimore to Kansas State. The feisty point guard has typically sought the toughest competition, trying to prove he was just as worthy.
From his early years of AAU ball — where as an 8-year-old for Baltimore's Best he competed for playing time against three other future Division I players — Stokes has lived up to the African name his parents bestowed upon him.
Rod Stokes, a former Coppin State baseball player, said his oldest child and only son’s name, Kamau, means “quiet warrior.” On Thursday night in Atlanta, the younger Stokes will be going after his biggest conquest as a college player.
One game after helping dispatch the Cinderellas of this year’s NCAA tournament — the No. 16 seeded Retrievers of UMBC — Stokes hopes to do the same to college basketball’s winningest program, Kentucky, and its roster filled with former 5-star recruits and future NBA first-round picks.
“They’re just another team in our way,” the younger Stokes said Tuesday. “Rankings and stuff never mattered to me. I didn’t get a lot of stars coming out [of high school] but look where I am now in the Sweet 16. That shows you right there that rankings don’t mean nothing.”
A 3-star recruit coming out of City, he led the Knights to an unbeaten season and a 3A state title a year after he and Daxter Miles helped Dunbar to a 1A title. Stokes initially committed to Toledo before the assistant who recruited him there left for another school.
Stokes decommitted, but when no other comparable offers came, the then 5-11, 155-pound Stokes wound up going to Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. He averaged more than 27 points a game and better offers emerged.
“That’s when he made the statement, ‘I’m here,’ ” Rod Stokes said.
It was just another place for Stokes, now a 6-foot, 170-pound junior, to prove himself.
“I feel like people doubted me plenty of times throughout my life, but I always prove them wrong by winning championships throughout high school and even making it to this big of a level,” Stokes said.
Along the way, Stokes developed the kind of persona that has become a trademark for Baltimore guards going back to Sam Cassell and perhaps even Skip Wise. In his case, Stokes had no choice if he wanted to get playing time on his AAU team.
For much of his AAU career, Stokes shared the same backcourt on Baltimore’s Best with Jaylen Adams, who recently finished his career at St. Bonaventure. The teams also included Rodney Elliott Jr., who played at UMBC and Troy Caupain, who played at Cincinnati and is now playing on the Orlando Magic’s G-League affiliate.
“Every day these guys went at it in practice,” Rod Stokes recalled “They cut their teeth on each other every day. There were really no better guards than those guys.”
Along the way, Stokes lived up to his name.
“He’s quiet in the sense that he’s not overly vocal, but when something needs to be said, he’ll certainly speak up, and speak in a way that he will be heard,” Rod Stokes said. “He’s always exemplified his name.”
Stokes showed pretty quickly at Kansas State that he belonged, starting his first game as a freshman.
In his fifth game, Stokes scored 24 points — still his career-high — against No. 9 North Carolina. Averaging 9.4 points in close to 27 minutes a game, Stokes had his first year cut short by a knee injury with 12 games left. Kansas State struggled to a 17-16 record.
After helping the Wildcats get back to the NCAA tournament as a sophomore by averaging 11.7 points and 4.1. assists — including 23 points against Wake Forest in a First Four NCAA tournament game — Stokes was off to a strong start this season.
Averaging close to 15 points through the team’s first 13 games, Stokes began experiencing pain in his left foot. After playing in two more games, including shooting 0-for-10 against Miles and West Virginia, Stokes was diagnosed with a Jones Fracture.
Expected to miss up up to eight weeks — and possibly the rest of the season depending on his recovery — Stokes was back in a little more than three weeks. Since returning Feb. 3 against the Mountaineers, Stokes has averaged fewer than four points a game.
A 42 percent shooter overall as well as on 3-pointers this season prior to the foot injury, Stokes has hit just 26.8 percent overall [18 for 67] and has missed 33 of the 39 3-pointers he has attempted since coming back.
“It’s hard, coming back from a broken foot, you don’t know what to expect, you’re not yourself,” Stokes said. “You don’t get the same push, but you’ve just go to make adjustments and play the game.”
Kansas State assistant Chester Frazier said that Stokes is still not 100 percent.
“When you get back off [an] injury, you try to do too much, you know what I mean? When he first came back his mind was at one place, but obviously his health wasn’t,” Frazier said. “He’s still a valuable piece as he’s trying to get going. He’s got experience.”
But given his roots, Stokes will try to soldier through and help the Wildcats get to their first NCAA regional final since 2010. Stokes is one of three former Baltimore high school guards, along with Miles and Villanova’s Phil Booth Jr., remaining in the tournament.
“There’s definitely a different type of toughness, no matter what we’re real competitive and we want to win,” Stokes said about Baltimore guards. “Whoever’s still in the tournament they’ve shown that, UMBC even showed that when they beat Virginia. It’s something I value.”
Said Frazier, a fellow Baltimorean who starred at Lake Clifton before going to play at Illinois: “Coming from where we come from and seeing what we see every day, you usually have to have that [toughness].”
Stokes understood the role he and No. 9 seed Kansas State had to play against the Retrievers. Told that he and Wildcats broke a lot of hearts by beating his hometown team on Sunday night, Stokes said with a laugh, “I had no choice.”
Now the role is reversed, with Stokes and Kansas State considered the underdog against Kentucky, a No. 5 seed that many feel underachieved until a late-season run. It is a role he is much more comfortable playing, one he has prepped for since childhood.
“He’s always been an underdog, under-recruited, undervalued, and he’s always taken that personally, since he's eight years old,” Rod Stokes said. “He gets up for the big games. He always gets up for anybody who’s supposed to be ‘the guy.’ ”