By Ben Golliver
You're officially allowed to get excited about the Slam Dunk Contest again.
The NBA announced the field for next week's on Thursday, with three players from each conference included.
What this group lacks in star power, it makes up for in everything else, boasting an excellent combination of new blood and old blood, power dunkers and smooth dunkers, and even a nice positional mix too. Let's break down the field one-by-one with some video of their finest work.
The Defending Champion: Jeremy Evans (Jazz)
Evans, the 2012 Slam Dunk Contest champion, is a 6-foot-9, 196-pound string bean pogostick with absurdly long arms. He showed off a fair bit of creativity in last year's contest, incorporating a tribute to Karl Malone (complete with a "Mailman" skit and jersey) and a two-ball, two-hand alley-oop as he jumped over teammate Gordon Hayward, who was seated in a chair. Evans won by virtue of a split fan vote last year that left many confused. Let's just say that the crowd in Orlando's Amway Center wasn't overwhelmingly enthusiastic when his victory was announced.
In his third year out of Western Kentucky, Evans, 25, is averaging 1.3 points and 1.2 rebounds in just 5.6 minutes per game for the Jazz. The Dunk Contest is the highlight of his season, by far, and he will surely come prepared with some fresh gimmicks. Only Michael Jordan (1987 and 1988), Jason Richardson (2002 and 2003) and Nate Robinson (2009 and 2010) have won back-to-back Dunk Contests, meaning Evans could become the first non-guard to win two years in a row.
The (Veteran) Defending Champion: Gerald Green (Pacers)
Gerald Green won the 2007 Slam Dunk Contest. Yes, that's right: he won the Dunk Contest six years ago. I'm getting old, you're getting old, we're all getting old. Green, now 27, is known for his monstrous vertical leap, his smooth cruising ability and his powerful finishing. The 6-foot-8, 210-pound Green won in 2007 on the strength of his windmill assortment, but he's most famous for his 2008 "Cupcake" dunk, when he blew out the candle on a cupcake that was resting on the back of the rim as he dunked.
Green's hops haven't fallen off in the slightest as he's aged through his 20s. Earlier this season, the Pacers showed off a photo of Green with his entire head above the rim looking down into the hoop and he's posterized Samardo Samuels and gotten head level against the Jazz this season. The Point Forward's Rob Mahoney selected Green as one of four participants in his dream field earlier Thursday. Can't argue with that.
The Big Man: Kenneth Faried (Nuggets)
OK, so Faried isn't a truly big man like teammate JaVale McGee (a 2011 Slam Dunk Contest participant) but he's still a power forward who adds a different flavor to the mix of guards and wings. The best word to describe Faried, 23, is ferocious: he's power and speed to the max. At 6-foot-8 and 228 pounds, he's a rim punisher whose speciality is finsihing lobs, and you can bet someone will be there tossing him alley-oops of all sorts.
Faried has one other X-factor going for him: his wide-smiling, charismatic personality. He'll be "having fun out there" and that will surely win him some crowd support.
The Little Guy: Eric Bledsoe (Clippers)
Bledsoe, 23, will be playing the role of a performance-enhanced Nate Robinson or Spud Webb. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Bledsoe gets off the ground in a hurry, has excellent hang time and an almost comically long wingspan. His scud missile-esque in-game flights are a regular occurrence on both ends: he averages 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes and is a regular presence finishing Lob City fast breaks.
He's the biggest unknown in the field with a high upside, but how will his physical skills translate to a manufactured format? That's an open question. Hey, if we can't have LeBron James, at least we get to see the man they call "Mini-LeBron."
The Rook: Terrence Ross (Raptors)
I've been pushing hard for Ross for the Dunk Contest all season long and his inclusion in the field is excellent work by the NBA. It's no easy task getting selected for All-Star Weekend when you play just 17.5 minutes per game off of the bench for a team that's well below-.500 like the Raptors, especially with teammate DeMar DeRozan casting a big shadow when it comes to aerial talent. Ross, listed at 6-foot-6 and 195 pounds, just makes dunking look easy like Sunday morning.
His cruising tip dunk was one of the year's best and most unique slams and he threw down a pair of eye-popping dunks in the same game against the Magic this year. Ross, the youngest competitor in this year's contest at 22, boasts traditional size, nice leaping ability, great timing, good hang time and an oh-so-smooth demeanor.
The Internet Legend: James White (Knicks)
Had to save the best for last. There's no question that "Flight" White is the most anticipated man in the field among hoops junkies and that excitement only ratcheted up a notch when he recently guaranteed that he would win this contest if selected. Now 30, White has been competing in Dunk Contests at various levels for more than a decade.
A 6-foot-7, 215-pound long jump style leaper, White's signature move is the free throw line dunk, which he accentuates with all sorts of ball tricks. He's got scissor kick dunks, through-the-legs dunks, over-the-chair dunks, around-the-back dunks, rock-the-cradle dunks, cuff-the-ball dunks, you name it. As with Green, The Point Forward's Rob Mahoney selected White as one of four participants in his dream field.
Handicapping the field
Here's the NBA explanation for how the format will work this year.
The 2013 Sprite Slam Dunk contest will consist of the three Eastern Conference players competing against the three from the Western Conference in a two-round competition. The highest scoring East competitor and the highest scoring West competitor from the Team Round will compete head-to-head to determine the champion. Fan voting (via text, Twitter, NBA.com and the NBA's All-Star app) will open at the beginning of the Championship Round and the player with the highest percentage of combined votes from all platforms will be champion.
The one dunker per conference rule is unfortunate, because Green and White are probably the two favorites overall, and it's possible the East competitors would finish 1-2-3 in an open format. (Our friends at Ball Don't Lie seem to agree.) With the rules as they are, though, I'll take Bledsoe in the West and White in the East, with White going on to claim the title he was born to win: 2013 Slam Dunk Contest champion.