After Tennessee’s comeback victory over Alabama on Tuesday, February 4th, former Vol great Grant Williams — who was a first-round pick of the Boston Celtics in the 2019 NBA Draft — tweeted out that current Vol forward John Fulkerson is deserving of being voted a First Team All-SEC performer.
John Fulkerson 1st team All-SEC. that is the tweet. that is all.
— Grant Williams (@Grant2Will) February 5, 2020
That got me to thinking: Is Fulkerson performing at an All-SEC level? Or is this just a case of Fulkerson’s former teammate hyping him up after he scored a career-high 22 points against the Tide?
Tennessee’s 2019-20 season hasn’t gone how fans, players, and the coaches would’ve hoped, but redshirt junior John Fulkerson has been one of the bright spots. Fulkerson’s offensive game has transformed dramatically this season compared to the last two years, and he’s finally fully healthy and playing at his highest level since becoming a Vol.
Fulkerson is averaging career-highs in points per game (12.2), rebounds per game (6.0), assists per game (1.4), and field goal percentage (63.2%). In fact, Fulkerson’s field goal percentage this season is on pace to be one of the best single-season marks in school history. As it stands right now, Fulkerson’s 63.2 percent clip overall would be the third-best percentage in a single season in UT history, trailing only Dale Ellis (65.4%) and Reggie Johnson (64.5%). It would be better than Bernard King’s best season as a Vol, which was 62.2 percent.
And it’s not like Fulkerson has padded his stats against a bunch of scrubs, either; he’s arguably been the Vols’ best performer in SEC play this season.
Right now, Fulkerson is tied with Jordan Bowden for the most points per game in SEC play for the Vols, averaging 12.7 points a game against conference foes. He leads the team in rebounding in SEC play at 6.4 a game, and both his free throw percentage (84.1%) and his field goal percentage (58.4%) are tops on the team against SEC opponents.
That’s right; John Fulkerson, a 6-foot-9 country boy from Kingsport, Tennessee, is the Vols’ most efficient player in SEC play. Not 1,000-point scorer Jordan Bowden, not former four-star athlete Yves Pons, and not former five-star guard Josiah-Jordan James; John Fulkerson, who was rated as the No. 238 overall prospect in the 2016 class according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, has been UT’s best and most consistent player for most of this season.
Coming into this season, Fulkerson had totaled one double-double in his 76 previous games as a Vol. In 23 games this year, Fulkerson has gotten a double-double on three separate occasions, and he’s scored in double figures in all but seven games this season. Before this year, Fulkerson had totaled 10 or more points just four times in 76 games. Twelve of Fulkerson’s 13 highest-scoring games as a Vol have come during this season.
Another shocking stat: Fulkerson’s offensive plus/minus this season is a 4.4, which is far and away the best on UT’s team. The next-closest is a three-way tie between Yves Pons, Jordan Bowden, and Jalen Johnson, who all have a 1.5 on the year.
Other SEC forwards are having better overall years than Fulkerson, for sure. Mississippi State’s Reggie Perry, Kentucky’s Nick Richards, LSU’s Trendon Watford, and Georgia’s Rayshaun Hammonds have put together strong seasons thus far. But Fulkerson’s transformation from role player to one of Tennessee’s top scoring options has been nothing short of remarkable to watch.
Fulkerson’s impact goes beyond the stat sheet, too.
Aside from freshman Olivier Nkamhoua, Fulkerson was Tennessee’s lone post presence for most of this season. Yves Pons plays as an undersized four, but Fulkerson was the tallest active player on the roster for the first couple months. It wasn’t until seven-foot transfer Uros Plavsic was finally cleared to play in January that Fulkerson started to get some more help down low, but even then Plavsic’s playing time has been sporadic, and his impact minimal beyond a couple games.
Without a dynamic three-point shooter to alleviate the pressure inside, Fulkerson has been one of UT’s only scoring options in the paint. And he’s developed a number of post moves that have become more and more difficult to defend as the season has gone on.
Fulkerson now can hit a fadeaway jumper with regularity. He has a spin move that hearkens back to Grant Williams’ time as a Vol. He can charge into the lane and drive to the basket like a guard. Fulkerson is even athletic enough to sky for alley-oop dunks. He’s also savvy enough to draw numerous fouls on opposing post players and get them into foul trouble.
Defensively, Pons gets a lot of the attention for UT, and rightfully so. The “Flying Frenchman” is on pace to shatter Tennessee’s record for most blocks in a season. But Fulkerson has been an effective defender as well, especially when you consider he doesn’t have the bulk on his 6-foot-9 frame that other post players do in the SEC.
The redshirt junior is tied with Pons and Jordan Bowden for the most defensive win shares on the team this season (1.4). His defensive plus/minus of 4.5 on the year is the third-best on the team, and his overall plus/minus of 8.9 is easily the best on the team. Fulkerson is the only Vol player with a win share value over 1.0 in conference play, totaling a 1.5. The next-closest is Jalen Johnson at 0.7 in 10 SEC games.
Over his last nine games, Fulkerson has been Tennessee’s best and most consistent player. In that stretch, he’s averaging 13.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.3 assists while making 60.5 percent of his shots and 84.6 percent of his free throws in 31.1 minutes a game. Only Jordan Bowden (14.4 PPG) is averaging more points per game during that stretch for UT, but he’s doing so at a much less efficient rate, attempting 12.2 field goals a game and making just 37.3 percent of them. Fulkerson has attempted 8.4 field goals per contest in that same span.
At first glance, it may not look like John Fulkerson is one of the best forwards in the SEC. But if you dig deeper and look at his value to Tennessee’s team, it’s apparent that if he keeps up what he’s done as of late, he deserves at least a Second Team All-SEC nod.