This article is written by guest writer Spencer Morrell
“You go back to one of his first couple games at North Carolina, he was the best player on the floor,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said while reminiscing about a player he coached on a young Tennessee squad back in 2016, a team that included future NBA draft picks Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bone.
However, Barnes wasn’t talking about any of those well-known Vol legends; he was talking about a Volunteer that just this week put up one of the greatest performances a Tennessee player has ever had in Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.
He was talking about John Fulkerson.
John Fulkerson stepped onto UT’s campus in 2016 as a long, athletic hustling forward who could explode off the floor on his way to the rim. As his freshman season began, the Kingsport, Tennessee native showed that explosiveness by being both a tenacious rebounder and dunker. After recording a double-double in an overtime loss to Oregon in the Maui Invitational, Fulkerson became a fixture in the Vols’ starting lineup.
In December of that season, the Vols would travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to take on a Tar Heel team ranked in the top 10. Fulkerson clocked in one of the best performances of his young career in that game, as he recorded eight points without missing a shot on offense, and he helped hold UNC senior big man Kennedy Meeks under 10 points on defense. The Vols lost a two -point heartbreaker in the Dean Smith Center that Sunday afternoon to a Tar Heel team that would be crowned National Champions at the end of the season. Nevertheless, this effort was a sign of things to come for Rick Barnes’ Tennessee program, and it seemed Fulkerson would play a leading role in the games and seasons to come.
Unfortunately, Fulkerson’s career took a detour.
Just four days after the Vols returned from North Carolina, Fulkerson suffered a brutal injury in a game against Lipscomb. The freshman fell hard on his right side, which dislocated his right elbow and fractured his right wrist.
His season was over.
The only silver lining was that Fulkerson had played in only a handful of games, so he was eligible for a medical hardship redshirt, meaning he would not lose a year of eligibility due to his injury.
His season was over, but Fulkerson’s journey was just beginning. Weeks of rehab stretched into months as he fought to get back on the practice floor. Then in the spring of 2017, Fulkerson’s recovery hit a bump in the road. He suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder, which required surgery. This further delayed his return to the floor.
By the time Fulkerson had fully recovered from his injuries, he had missed almost a full year of practice, training, and development.
Going so long without even being able to pick up a basketball heavily hampered Fulkerson’s ability to find his stride during his redshirt freshman season. He struggled to rediscover the explosiveness and tenacity he had played with his freshman year before the injury. Fulkerson saw limited minutes and made a minimal impact during his second season as a Vol as he tried to rebuild his body, mind, and career.
As the Kingsport native began his redshirt sophomore season, he finally seemed to have recaptured some of the tenacity and hustle he was known for before his injury. However, the injury bug struck again as he suffered a broken nose in the third game of the 2018-2019 season.
But Fulkerson wouldn’t let an injury slow him down this time.
The game after his nose was broken, Fulkerson played through the injury and scored 11 points in 11 minutes in the first half against Louisville in the NIT Season Tip-Off. For the rest of the season, Fulkerson would be a reliable role player off the bench for a Tennessee team that enjoyed a No. 1 ranking for a month and made an NCAA Tournament run to the Sweet Sixteen.
At the beginning of this 2019-2020 basketball season, Fulkerson found himself in a starting role, a position he had not been in since his freshman year. This season for Tennessee has been full of ups and downs as they’ve had players rotate on and off the roster seemingly all season. Fulkerson, who at points in his career had been the most inconsistent part of the roster, has now become the most consistent part of the team. The big man has averaged double digit points by shooting 61 percent from the field on the year. In the second half of the season, he has become a leader for a Volunteer team that was in desperate need of leadership. He’s in the best offensive form of his career, and he still shows the same hustle and aggressiveness that he did when he was a wide-eyed 18-year-old freshman.
Fulkerson has stepped up in a big way and in big moments, none bigger than his last two games where he led his team to wins over arch-rivals Florida and Kentucky. Against Florida, Fulkerson racked up 22 points and made his first career 3-point basket as he almost single-handedly held off the Gators in the final minutes. In a stunning victory over sixth-ranked Kentucky, he totaled 27 points and six rebounds in a 39-minute performance for the ages at Rupp Arena. Vol legend Chris Lofton is the only Tennessee player in history to score more points in a game at Rupp Arena than Fulkerson did Tuesday night. Fulkerson also helped hold Kentucky’s 6-foot-11 forward and SEC Player of the Year candidate Nick Richards to only two made shots from the field.
It was a historic outing for a player who has battled incredible adversity throughout his career.
John Fulkerson completed the resurrection of his career at Rupp Arena on Tuesday. The potential that many fans, players, and coaches knew he had was finally put on full display in one of college basketball’s greatest cathedrals. At Rupp Arena this week, just as he had been at the Dean Smith Center years ago, John Fulkerson was once again “the best player on the floor.”