Outside of game-winning moments such as walk-off home runs or last-second Hail Mary passes, no sports incident causes fans to rise from their seats quite like a highlight-reel dunk. The Association’s best in-game dunkers do more than provide fans and sports broadcasts with incidents that go viral on a nightly basis. Just one posterizing slam can flip a game’s momentum and cause an arena filled with individuals who were previously sitting on their hands to become a “sixth man” for the home side. These are today's best in-game dunkers.
It was back in November 2018 when Milwaukee Bucks forward Pat Connaughton dunked into our hearts thanks to some unforgettable commentary from Reggie Miller. Anybody who scoffed when the 27-year-old was added to the 2020 Slam Dunk Contest had to eat their words after Connaughton flew over teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo to demonstrate his hops. As JR Radcliffe of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel documented, social-media users quite enjoyed Connaughton’s performance.
One of the many basketball-related things taken from us in March was the career resurgence of Dwight Howard. Superman may not take flight the same way he did in his prime, but he showed during a second stint with the Los Angeles Lakers that he can still bring the cape out for a ride now and again. His tribute to Kobe Bryant at the 2020 Slam Dunk Contest was spectacular.
We have to go back to 2019 to remember a time when Blake Griffin was terrorizing rims and would-be defenders since knee surgery made him a spectator before the start of 2020. Like Dwight Howard, Griffin isn’t the player of old these days, but we wouldn’t recommend attempting to get in either man’s way when they have some steam approaching the basket. Ask the Indiana Pacers about that.
From the second that guard Dennis Smith Jr. debuted in the fall of 2017, he showed he was a special aerial artist who drew comparisons to LeBron James for his artistic slams. Smith may never be an All-Star, but his 156-game resume is filled with some of the best dunks seen in the league over the past decade, at least. Here’s hoping there is a spot in the Association for Smith for many years to come.
Ja Morant was invited to participate in this year’s Slam Dunk Contest, but the uncrowned 2019-20 Rookie of the Year politely declined. That’s a shame since the 20-year-old routinely finished fearless one- and two-handed jams during what is, as of the typing of this sentence, a shortened debut campaign. Morant’s playmaking abilities weren’t shocking to behold, but he likely amazed even the toughest defenders with his willingness to crash the rim seemingly whenever possible.
Like father, like son. Larry Nance Jr. first began posterizing opponents while with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he has continued that tradition playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. At the 2018 Slam Dunk Contest, Nance honored his famous pops, but it wasn’t enough to propel him past Donovan Mitchell on that evening.
We understand if you missed out on some of DeMar DeRozan's better dunks during the 2019-20 season. After all, the San Antonio Spurs weren’t all that exciting. DeRozan repeatedly rocked rims in Spurs colors during the campaign, and he humbled poor Chris Boucher of the Toronto Raptors in January. Mr. Boucher may remain grounded the next time he sees DeRozan driving down the lane.
There is plenty to criticize about Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons even if he could win Defensive Player of the Year honors during the opening half of the 2020s. One can’t deny his incredible athleticism coupled with a wingspan that makes him uniquely unguardable once he leaves his feet near the hoop. Maybe one day, he’ll do more than joke about participating in a Dunk Contest.
Boston Celtics teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have several things in common, one of which is that both found great success meeting LeBron James at the rim. James isn’t the only player to lose such a battle vs. Brown despite having the size advantage. Giannis Antetokounmpo may still have nightmares about previous encounters with Brown.
One couldn’t be blamed for considering Paul George more of a perimeter defender than one of the best in-game dunkers in the league. Sure, George sometimes bends the rules regarding how many steps he can take before a jam, but that takes nothing away from those dunks that count on the scoreboard. His windmill should be admired in a museum.
According to Bleacher Report’s Leo Sepkowitz , the Brooklyn Nets brought DeAndre Jordan to the Big Apple more because of his relationship with Kevin Durant than because of what he could offer Brooklyn in postseason games. The days of the Lob City Clippers are but a memory, but Jordan can still shake backboards with the best of them. Just wait until Durant is in the lineup and able to additionally open driving lanes for Jordan.
Even though the Andrew Wiggins experiment with the Minnesota Timberwolves was inevitably doomed before the start of the 2019-20 season, he gave the club’s fans handfuls of positive memories that didn’t include a plethora of winning. In his first game vs. the Los Angeles Clippers as a member of the Golden State Warriors in March 2020, Wiggins baptized 7-footer Ivica Zubac with a thunderous one-handed slam that gave Golden State supporters something to anticipate, assuming Wiggins is with the club next fall.
Terrence Ross cemented his name in history when he won the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest. As great as Ross was vs. air that night, he has also caused defenders to clear the way and concede buckets rather than end up on the wrong end of poster slams. How do you stop somebody who appears to float above the paint?
Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid is a basketball cheat code, a 7-foot center who has a strong perimeter game and who can also dunk on any defender in the league if given only a step in the right direction. “The Process” may not want to “do a 180” during a competitive contest, but that shouldn’t let guys such as John Collins believe they can stop Embiid down low. Embiid should, however, do well to avoid certain post-dunk celebrations.
Back at the start of 2019, Anthony Davis was a 6-foot-10 future MVP entering his prime. That was before he joined the Los Angeles Lakers and became teammates with LeBron James. The Brow was a “SportsCenter” segment unto himself on a monthly basis during his first season in LA-LA Land, and there’s no reason to believe he wasn’t just getting started when the NBA suspended play.
Even before Oklahoma City Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo flew over Shaquille O’Neal and hung inside the rim en route to winning the 2019 Slam Dunk Contest, he’d already built an impressive compilation of dynamic dunks. Unsurprisingly, he added to that list throughout 2019-20. Marquese Chriss won’t fondly remember this slam after he calls time on his playing career.
Nobody should have needed to watch Donovan Mitchell win the 2018 Slam Dunk Contest to know he’s one of the best in the business. "Spida" opened the 2019-20 campaign with a dominant showing vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder, and he soared vs. a variety of other opponents until the league’s premature break. Nikola Vucevic made the right business decision in a one-on-one vs. Mitchell in December.
Here’s a scary thought for fans of teams other than the New Orleans Pelicans: What if Zion Williamson is even better than advertised? The rookie hit an impressive 6-of-13 three-pointers in 19 outings, and he often looked like a grown man playing against younger fellas during his best dunks. There’s plenty more of this in Williamson’s future.
Chicago Bulls fans have good reasons to feel disappointed these days. Guard Zach LaVine isn’t one of them even if he could be traded by the club during the upcoming offseason. The two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion deserves to be on a Mount Rushmore of the best NBA in-game dunkers of the 2010s, and the fact that he turned 25 years old in March tells us he’ll remain near the top of such lists for the foreseeable future, barring injury setbacks.
As Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob on Twitter) has documented over the years, the battles between Russell Westbrook and NBA rims are fascinating to follow. It sometimes seems as if Russ is angry at the buckets meant to house his slams, particularly when he puts extra oomph into his finishes. How did Mitchell Robinson or the New York Knicks and the rim hurt you, Mr. Westbrook?
We won’t try to take away the 2020 Slam Dunk Contest title won by Derrick Jones Jr. in this portion of the piece. Besides, it’s not as if Jones wasn’t a worthy champion. Each of the previous few years provided Jones with ample opportunities to dunk all over the G League and NBA, and he has more than answered the challenge.
It’s easy to forget LeBron James turned 35 years old in December. You wouldn’t know that by watching his dunks from the past season-and-a-half. Whether he is emulating Kobe Bryant or throwing the hammer down on overmatched opponents, the King proved in 2020 that he isn’t planning on abdicating the throne while in his 30s.
We end with (who should’ve been) the rightful winner of the 2020 Slam Dunk Contest . Aaron Gordon may never become his generation’s Blake Griffin. It’s possible the forward and the Orlando Magic both would benefit from a clean break. Nevertheless, Gordon deserves to be recognized for his creativity, athleticism, strength and eagerness to attempt slams others would only envision when playing a video game. It would be a shame if he retired without at least one dunk trophy.
Zac Wassink is a football and futbol aficionado who is a PFWA member and is probably yelling about Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Erik Lamela and Eli Manning apologist. Chanted for Matt Harvey to start the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field. Whoops. You can find him on Twitter at @ZacWassink.