Through the first three months of the season, redshirt junior forward John Fulkerson was proving to be a capable post player for Tennessee, but he struggled with consistency and wasn’t making the most of his offensive ability.
Over the last month, Fulkerson has kicked his offense into another gear, and he’s been playing at an All-SEC level.
In Fulkerson’s first 21 games of the season, he was putting up respectable numbers, averaging 11.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 29.1 minutes a contest. But over his last nine games, the Kingsport, TN native has hit another level entirely.
Fulkerson is putting up 18.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks a game in 31.9 minutes over his last nine games.
That production has many Vol fans lobbying for Fulkerson to make the first team of the All-SEC squad at the end of this season. But is the fourth-year junior worthy of making the first team?
“I don’t know if I would say all that. I haven’t looked at the entire league because it’s been a long year,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said to reporters on Thursday. “But he’s played like an All-SEC player for us. When you think about how we’ve been up, play this way, play that way, he’s done a terrific job, especially going into the game knowing people are game-planning for him first and foremost. He doesn’t get much of a break on the defensive end either.
“He’s had a terrific year, he really has. But when you look at the whole league, I don’t know if I could answer that. Do I think he’s an All-SEC player? No question.”
Even if it’s just the second team of the All-SEC squads, Fulkerson’s play over the last month has deservedly put him into the all-conference discussion. The redshirt junior had zero games of 20 or more points in his career up until the last month of the season. He’s now eclipsed the 20-point mark in four of his last nine games, and he’s been a force in the paint for Tennessee on both sides of the ball.
Fulkerson has not only been adept at finding ways to score on offense, but he’s upped his game defensively and has been a pest to opposing big men. The 6-foot-9, 212-pound forward gets opponents’ post players in foul trouble often, and he’s gone to the free throw line 73 times over his last nine contests, making 75.3 percent of those shots in the process.
He’s also been comfortable on the offensive end as a go-to scorer, and that’s been one of the more radical transformations in his game.
Through the first 21 games of the season, Fulkerson was taking an average of just 7.2 field goal attempts a game. But over his last nine games, Fulkerson is shooting the ball an average of 10.3 times a game.
Fulkerson has been more aggressive, more vocal, and continues to give 100 percent every time he’s on the floor. And Barnes has been pleased to see the huge improvement in Fulkerson’s game.
“That started a year ago,” Barnes said of Fulkerson’s improved play. “I mentioned after the game the other night, Grant (Williams), Kyle (Alexander), Admiral (Schofield), everyone, because we watched him in practice for four years. But with his personality, there’s no jealousy or any of that with him. He just, in his mind, felt like there was a role he had to play.
“Now that role has expanded, and it will continue to expand as he continues to embrace it and understand it more and realize that he has to be ready every night.”
Last season, Fulkerson was a role player off the bench for Tennessee, averaging 3.1 points and 2.6 rebounds in 12 minutes a game. To begin this season, he struggled to move past that mentality of only being a role player.
But over the last month, Fulkerson has finally begun to play up to his potential, and he’s been Tennessee’s best player in that span.
Heading into this season, Fulkerson had scored 212 points and grabbed 190 rebounds in 76 total games. This season, the redshirt junior has scored 407 points and has brought down 176 boards in 30 games.
Tennessee has needed John Fulkerson to step up, and he’s finally done just that. Whether he earns First Team All-SEC honors remains to be seen, but Barnes believes he’s at least warranted a spot on one of the All-SEC teams regardless.