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Making the leap: John Fulkerson

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Fulky becomes a huge part of this team.

West Virginia v Tennessee

Last time, we talked about Yves Pons, and it was wonderful because the title of this series fit well with Pons’ skill set, so I enjoyed the word play, and we all got to revel in Pons gliding through the air like a fish gliding through water. If you’ve missed any of the other stories in this series, you can read about Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden here and about Jalen Johnson here.

This time, let’s talk about John Fulkerson.

Fulkerson carved out a spot in Rick Barnes’ mostly-eight and sometimes-nine man rotation partly because Tennessee lacked quality depth in the post. He’s listed at 6-foot-9 (that’s probably at least an inch too generous, but that’s really neither here nor there) and was one of the few scholarship players on the team who was listed above 6-foot-8. The others were starting center Kyle Alexander, reserve big-men DJ Burns (who redshirted), Derrick Walker (who logged just 159 minutes) and Zach Kent (who logged zero minutes).

Tennessee’s potential issues from its lack of size in the post were offset partially by 6-foot-6 Grant Williams, who gobbled up rebounds like the Cookie monster gobbles up cookies, and 6-foot-6 Admiral Schofield, who was third on the team with a respectable 7.7 rebounds per 40 minutes.

However, besides Fulkerson, Kent is the only player mentioned above who is still on the team. Walker and Burns transferred while the others are in the NBA.

Fulkerson logged right at 12 minutes per game last year, seventh on the team, but given the roster’s makeup and the NCAA’s unfavorable ruling regarding Uros Plavsic, it seems that Fulkerson is in line for a major playing time increase.

The best predictor for the future is often past results and considering Fulkerson’s per-game numbers won’t accurately reflect his impact on the game, we’ll look to his per 40-minute numbers to ascertain what sort of contributions he could/ should make this year.

He averaged nearly nine rebounds per 40 minutes which ranked him third on the team behind Alexander (11.2) and Williams (9.4). You expect a player his height to collect the rebounds in his area, but Fulkerson showed flashes of the instincts and athleticism needed to get boards outside of his immediate vicinity, too.

In this clip, Fulkerson starts at the SEC logo in the lane but takes advantage of two South Carolina defenders figuring they’d rather just stand there instead of boxing anybody out. He takes two steps and rises up for a put-back dunk. DON’T CALL HIM JELLY ‘CAUSE THAT WAS A JAM.

This is a still from the play — please excuse the picture quality. There’s nothing overly special about the image, but let’s note that Fulkerson’s elbows are almost at the rim, and even for a guy who is 6-foot-8, those are decent hops.

Last year, when the offense stalled, Tennessee could feed Grant Williams in the post and let the big dog eat. In theory, the Vols won’t necessarily need Fulkerson scoring in bunches this season with Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden likely (hopefully?) providing most of the scoring pop.

Fulkerson just doesn’t really fit the mold of modern basketball’s “stretch,” four, e.g., Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, Dirk Nowitski, who spaces the defense out with his ability to shoot the ball from long range.

He averaged 10.5 points per 40-minutes which was more than Jalen Jonhson and Yves Pons but fewer than any other returning player. He doesn’t really even shoot the ball from anywhere outside the paint (that’s probably a good thing), but ideally Tennessee will get some scoring from him off layups and put-backs near the basket. He started at center for the Vols in the exhibition against Eastern New Mexico (he won the tip-off!!!) and was aggressive early. He finished the game with 10 points, 10 rebounds (five offensive, five defensive) and shot 50 percent from the field.

My favorite part of this video isn’t the aggressiveness or the energy, though both were great. It’s that he only dribbled once in the clip despite taking multiple shots. The one dribble was on a fast break when he had to put the ball on the floor. When tall players dribble, it negates the advantage their height provides and gives defenders an often unnecessary opportunity to steal the ball. In true #IncredibleFulk fashion, the motto was clearly GET BALL SHOOT BALL.

So, most of Fulkerson’s value is derived from his rebounding and ability to score points in the paint. But he’s not an outright terrible defender, either. For post players, blocked shots are typically how we measure a defender’s impact. Fulkerson was second on the team (Kyle Alexander led the team, 2.9 blocks per 40 mins) last season in blocked shots with an average of 2.3 per 40 minutes of playing time. That’s good.

The clip above is an impressive leap and, as a right-handed player, required some serious coordination and body control to execute with his left hand.

Defensive rating is a more comprehensive metric for measuring an individual player’s value. It factors in steals, blocks, the times a defender lets his man past him (blow-bys) and deflections, and it’s not impacted by his teammates’ performances. Fulkerson’s rating was 96.2, which was the lowest of any player who played regularly. That’s not good.

Part of the problem here is Fulkerson’s propensity for fouling. He fouled an average of 6.2 times per 40 minutes last season, and that’s nearly 38 percent more than the next closest player on the team (Kyle Alexander, 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes). Fulkerson tallied at least three (3) fouls in nine (9) games even though he never played more than 19 minutes during any single contest.

That was fine last season as a role player. Hell, sometimes he was useful simply because he was a player with five fouls to use. But this season, likely having a more prominent role with the team, the fouls will have to be checked. Now that Plavsic has been ruled ineligible, Fulkerson is likely the team’s starting center and will play more by default.

Fulkerson was sometimes ridiculed (I’m guilty here) on social media for looking like he’s all knees and elbows when he runs and for looking clunky and rigid and awkward when he does just about anything basketball related. But he’s more athletic than he sometimes looks; he’s a good rebounder and he can finish around the rim and block shots. Tennessee is trying to replace metaphorical tons of production and will be relying on Fulkerson more. There’s a fine line between doing more and helping the team, and doing more but accomplishing less. The appropriate cliche is “play within himself,” which means Tennessee will need Fulkerson to “make a leap,” but it won’t need him doing things he’s not good at.