When Yves Pons and John Fulkerson first stepped foot on Tennessee’s campus, both players were raw in their own way.
Pons, a four-star recruit from France, had an incredible highlight reel. He was still developing as a basketball player, but the athletic ability was certainly there.
Fulkerson was a three-star prospect who came from just up the road in Kingsport. His offers mainly came from smaller schools, along with the likes of Virginia Tech and Clemson.
Both guys have developed immensely under the tutelage of Rick Barnes and his coaching staff, becoming key veteran pieces in what could be one of the Vols’ best teams in program history.
“I go back and I think of John and Yves,” Barnes said earlier this week. “It’s important that they step up and be the leaders because I think that your best teams are going to come when you’ve got great leadership from them. Both of those guys aren’t the most outgoing people on the court, but John has gotten much better and Yves has too.”
Pons, the 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, started all 31 games for Tennessee last season and became the first Vol to win the league’s DPOY award. He tied C.J. Black for the program’s single-season blocks record with 73.
While the offense can still be suspect at times — Pons averaged 10.8 points per game — his athletic ability and knack to find the ball presents challenges for opposing teams. He also has the ability to guard any position on the floor.
Pons chose to test the NBA Draft process during the offseason, but eventually decided to return for his senior season.
“He’s improved, he has, and I think this year is going to give him a chance to walk into the NBA from the front door,” Barnes said. “I believe it. The growth he’s made and will continue to make because he works. He’s got a chance to really be in that league for a long time.”
Fulkerson has had an up-and-down career at Tennessee, mainly due to a season-ending injury he suffered during his freshman season. Barnes said Fulkerson told him the injury set him back ‘a lot more than I thought.’
The 6-foot-9 forward is coming off a 2020 All-SEC Second Team (Coaches) appearance. He scored a career-high 27 points in an upset win at Kentucky in March and led the team with 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.
Fulkerson was second in the SEC in field-goal percentage at .612. He will now be hoping to expand his range heading into his senior season and a potential professional career.
“We’ve told him, he’s going to have to expand his shooting ability, to step out further, which he’s capable of doing,” Barnes said. “He just has never really put the time in to make it a big part of his game, but he’s doing it now.”
Tennessee has exciting young pieces heading into the 2020-21 season, but it’s Pons and Fulkerson who will likely determine how much the Vols achieve.