NASHVILLE — If nothing else, John Fulkerson is making believers of a number of people this basketball season.
He is doing so while confirming the beliefs of those closest to him.
The old adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same" could apply to Tennessee's 6-foot-9, 212-pound redshirt junior forward, who was named to the All-Southeastern Conference team by league coaches earlier this week before leading the Volunteers (17-14) into the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
The eighth-seeded Vols will face ninth-seeded Alabama (16-15) at 1 p.m. EDT Thursday, the first of four second-round matchups in Nashville, with all of them televised by the SEC Network — and none of them played in front of big crowds due to concerns regarding the coronavirus outbreak.
The Alabama-Tennessee winner advances to face top-seeded Kentucky (25-6) at the same time Friday, and the tournament will be played from Thursday to its conclusion with only "essential staff, limited family and credentialed media in attendance," according to a release from the SEC.
Fulkerson was one of two Vols honored Tuesday. Classmate Yves Pons, who tied a program record with 73 blocks and at least one in every game during the regular season, was named the SEC defensive player of the year, the first such honoree from Tennessee.
While Fulkerson has gone from filling the role of an energetic hustle guy to being more of a focal point of the offense this season, the results have remained the same regarding his efficiency as a player. He has per-game averages of 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds, and in his past 10 games he has averaged 18.3 points and shot 57% from the field.
Entering this season, Fulkerson had scored 212 points as a Vol. In his past 13 games, he has 219.
The most impressive part is that while he has been used far more often in the offense (21.2% of the Vols' possessions this season compared to 13.2% last season and 13.4% as a freshman), he hasn't become erratic. His offensive rating this season is 121.4, which ranks seventh in the SEC. A year ago it was 121.0.
Unexpected? To some, but not all.
"I'm not surprised at all, because I've seen it before when he played for me," Tennessee Bobcats AAU coach Kevin Feltner, who coached Fulkerson for three seasons, said Wednesday. "The only thing that should surprise anybody is once the playing time got to the level that it should be at from a consistency perspective, then the confidence got to the level where he can play like he's always played for us. It's been there from the get-go; it's just the role and playing-time rotations that got in the way, and that's what we're seeing now."
Feltner became a fan of Fulkerson watching him play in a junior varsity game as a sophomore at Dobyns-Bennett in Kingsport, where Fulkerson spent his first two high school seasons before finishing his prep career at Christ School in Arden, North Carolina. It was the motor, the athleticism that immediately made Feltner a fan.
But there's also a certain skill level to the left-handed Fulkerson, one that still hasn't been quite fully unlocked. There are glimpses — recent games are evidence of that — but the player Feltner knew was there and Tennessee coach Rick Barnes constantly was imploring Fulkerson to show has started to be unearthed as his playing time has increased.
Multiple opposing coaches throughout the season have spoken about Fulkerson's energetic effort, but after a 27-point performance in the Vols' unlikely comeback victory at Kentucky on March 3, the Wildcats' John Calipari said there was more than that.
"He's just gotten better and better," Calipari told reporters after the Vols' 81-73 win. "He works really hard; he fights for everything, and he has a way of getting that shot up and off, I mean, he does. And he scored on Nick (Richards), he scored on Nate (Sestina), he scored on E.J. (Montgomery), we tried everybody. We tried trapping, we tried a lot of different things to slow him down, but he was a tough cover for us."
But those who knew Fulkerson knew that was there. And the best part for him and the Vols is that there's still room to grow, including his ball handling and outside shooting — Fulkerson has only attempted two 3-pointers in his Tennessee career, making one in the Vols' big win over Florida on Feb. 29.
Perhaps the best news about Fulkerson's junior season is that there will be a senior season. And being in a program that is built on skill development, that could lead to another year of substantial growth.
"There's no doubt his mindset has changed," Barnes said recently. "I do believe that. I do think that he understands what he needs to do. He's had to learn it; I will say that. It's not in his nature to play the way he's been playing. The way people game plan for him, he gets pushed, he gets shoved around more than any player I've ever coached. He gets shoved a lot. People think he's flopping out there; he's not. He's light, he's quick, and his motor is what makes him different. He gets pushed off position a lot and gets walked under more than people might think. He never complains about it. When he's talking to an official something has happened, because he never does that.
"His mindset has changed where he realizes that we need him to be aggressive. I go back to he and Yves. Not only do they have to do it on the defensive end, both of those guys are trying to get it done on the offensive end. No one has got more of a load to carry than what Fulky has been carrying in the last couple weeks. That's for certain."