Jimmy’s blog: Two things convinced Fulkerson to return

By Jimmy Hyams

John Fulkerson doesn’t remember his final game of the 2020-21 season.

Two elbows from Florida’s Omar Payne left Fulkerson with a concussion and memory loss.

That’s not the way Tennessee’s 6-9 forward wanted to end his career. And it won’t be.

Fulkerson announced today he is returning for a sixth year of eligibility.

“Vol Nation, I’m back,’’ was a part of his video post.

It’s not surprising. Several sources indicated Fulkerson was trending toward a return.

And while Fulkerson looked the part of a departing senior at UT’s Senior Day ceremonies March 7, I think two things impacted his final decision.

One, the pain inflicted by Payne. Fulkerson didn’t want to go out that way, didn’t want that to be his last moment in the Vol uniform he so cherishes.

Fulkerson mentioned in his video what the freshman Fulkerson would think if the senior Fulkerson left that way: “What would he think of the last time I walked off the court (actually carried off) in Nashville? What would he think if I told him I had a chance to do it all one more time? To walk off the court on my own terms. I think I know what he would want me to do. And I’m not about to let him down.’’

Fulkerson wants to “walk off the court on my own terms,’’ not the terms created by someone else’s flying elbow.

But that’s only part of the equation, in my opinion.

I’m not sure Fulkerson enjoyed being the focal point of the inside attack without help. Other than a guard posting up now and then, Fulkerson was the guy.

I’m convinced if Tennessee didn’t get Fulkerson some inside help, he wouldn’t have returned.

But UT stepped to the plate in a big way. The Vols got 7-footer Jonas Aidoo, rated the No. 6 center in the nation, and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (a Clarksville native) who is rated the No. 1 power forward in the nation. Both can score inside and rebound and defend. And help Fulkerson.

Add five-star point guard Kennedy Chandler to the equation, and Tennessee’s offense can be more productive and consistent than it was a year ago, even with the departures of Jaiden Springer, Keon Johnson and Yves Pons.

In the last 10 games of Fulkerson’s junior season, he averaged 18.3 points, including a 27-point outburst at Kentucky.

That might have been a good-news, bad-news story. The good: Fulkerson appeared to have arrived and made All-SEC. The bad: He was the focal point of most opponent’s interior defense last season.

Fulkerson’s production dropped off dramatically from his junior to senior season. And he was inconsistent. He lacked energy. He looked, at times, anemic.

Fulkerson isn’t one to make excuses, but I can’t help but think he was impacted by Covid-19. He has not acknowledged that, and I don’t know if he was ever asked.

Vols coach Rick Barnes said many players across the country were impced by Covid-19. Barnes didn’t mentioned Fulkerson, but it made you wonder.

When asked about his lack of energy and inconsistent play from time to time, Fulkerson didn’t play the Covid card.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe something else impacted Fulkerson’s downward turn last season.

Whatever it was, look for Fulkerson to make a dramatic turnaround this season.

As he said in his video, the opportunity to return “is too special to walk away from.’’

Look for Fulkerson to have a special sixth season.

And look for him to get some help along the way.

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