Throughout the annals of NBA history, Slam Dunk Contest competitors have ranged from hyper-athletic benchwarmers to the game’s biggest stars—Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Julius Erving come to mind.
And while some from the former group were able to shed the label of “just a dunker” to become impactful NBA contributors (ex. Gerald Green, Gerald Wallace), far more slipped away into obscurity: Joe Alexander, Shannon Brown, Jeremy Evans, Jamario Moon, Tyrus Thomas and Fred Jones, among others.
There are four contestants in the Slam Dunk field this year, and all seem to have shed—or are poised to rid themselves of—the infamous “just a dunker” moniker. This week’s iteration of Data Dimes will focus on the four dunkers’ other basketball skills.
To be clear, we’re still ecstatic to watch them show off high-flying athletic feats (and some originality), but these guys are more than just dunkers.
Note: All stats referenced in this article are accurate as of Feb. 10, prior to games played. Visualizations will update automatically.
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24% Total Rebound Percentage
Of the contestants set to compete in the 2016 Slam Dunk Contest, Andre Drummond sports the most accomplishments outside the “just a dunker” realm. The Pistons center was named to his first All-Star team this year, and he has continued to blossom as one of the league’s premier young centers.
The biggest reason for Drummond’s two-way impact is rebounding. PointAfter’s Data Dimes column has covered the big man’s glass cleaning prowess throughout the season (here, here and here), and he’s hardly slowed down.
Although he’s no longer on pace to average 16 rebounds per game—a mark that would put him in the company of 15 other NBA players to do so in a single season, all of whom reached the Hall of Fame—Drummond still leads the league.
He’s also tops in total rebound percentage (an estimate of the number of available rebounds a player grabbed while on the floor) at 24%, ahead of his contemporary DeAndre Jordan (22.6%), per Basketball Reference.
Of course, while the rebounding has always been there as a significant strength for Drummond, he’s buffed his scoring output significantly this season as well.
He ranks tied for third among centers in scoring at 17 points per game. In terms of blocks, he sits just outside the top 10 among his position.
Drummond clearly brings more to the table than dunks, but it remains to be seen whether the All-Star interior force can compete against the rest above the rim. He’s certainly a longshot to win the Slam Dunk Contest, which historically favors athletic swingmen.
552 Fourth Quarter Minutes
Will Barton can throw down. His placement in this year’s dunk contest makes a lot of sense, but the 25-year-old University of Memphis product is also proving to be a legitimate contributor outside of rim-rattling highlights.
After entering the league as a scrawny second-round pick in 2012 (selected No. 40 overall by the the Portland Trail Blazers), Barton has evolved into a Most Improved Player candidate with the Denver Nuggets.
Compared to his per-game totals from a season ago (split between Portland and Denver), Barton has improved by 8.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game. He’s now averaging career bests in all of those categories, and his efficiency scoring is also the best it’s ever been by considerable margins.
Those aren’t hollow numbers, either, as Barton has notched a league-high 552 minutes in fourth quarters this season, according to NBA.com. The only other players to crack the 500-minute barrier thus far are Cory Joseph (507 minutes) and Evan Turner (503). Neither can hold a candle to Barton’s lead.
Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has put a lot of faith in Barton to perform in crunch time this season, and that decision has paid off more often than not. Denver is 12–8 in games decided by five points or fewer this season—not too shabby for a team that sits at 22–32 overall.
It’s fair to assume Portland regrets sending Barton, Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver and a 2016 first-round pick to Denver in exchange for Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee (especially since neither of those guys are still Trail Blazers). Barton appears to have an extremely bright future.
2.9% And-One Frequency Percentage
Without question, Drummond and Barton are further along in their NBA development when compared to the other two guys gearing up to dunk on the big stage this year. Still, that doesn’t mean Aaron Gordon doesn’t flash plenty of untapped potential.
According to NBA.com, the former Arizona Wildcat finishes through contact 2.9% of the time—the 15th-best mark in the entire NBA. His free throw frequency of 8.8% is tops on the Orlando Magic. And, while this can’t exactly be quantified, he’s earning stellar grades on the eye test.
Aaron Gordon needs to get really good, b/c there aren't that many guys that fun to watch play. Dude is electric. — Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) February 1, 2016
As he was wont to do in college, Gordon has done a better job as an NBA sophomore attacking the basket, scoring and drawing fouls. He remains a poor free throw shooter, though, so that’s an area he’ll have to improve. Nevertheless, it’s clear Gordon is getting more comfortable in the pros despite battling through a barrage of injuries.
When you remember that this kid is still just 20 years old, it’s not difficult to imagine him as an absolute beast at Barton’s age.
13.3 Turnover Percentage
Finally, we have the reigning Slam Dunk Champion, Zach LaVine. Though the Minnesota Timberwolves guard hasn’t seen the surface-level year-to-year improvement of Drummond, Barton or even Gordon, LaVine has improved in one key area: ballhandling.
In 77 games played as a rookie last year, LaVine committed 108 “bad pass” turnovers and 57 “lost ball” turnovers, per Basketball Reference. Through 53 games so far this season, those same figures sit at 42 and 35, respectively. LaVine is on pace to be much improved in terms of protecting the rock in both cases. As a result of that improvement, the 20-year-old’s turnover percentage (an estimate of turnovers committed per 100 plays) has dipped to 13.3 compared to 20.4 a season ago.
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Tack on the fact that LaVine ranks in the 81st percentile in spot-up shooting, per NBA.com, and there are some clear improvements in the youngster’s game that go beyond the basics of scoring and rebounding.
Still, it’s stunningly obvious that dunking remains LaVine’s biggest strength. His leaping ability is second to none in the NBA today, and his effortless display winning the contest a year ago makes him the undisputed frontrunner.
If he wins again, LaVine will join Michael Jordan, Jason Richardson and Nate Robinson as the only players to win back-to-back dunk contests.