It’s best to go ahead and admit this up front: Saturday’s Slam Dunk Contest will have its hands full matching the excitement generated by last year’s event in Toronto.
While the 2016 Slam Dunk Contest can’t match Michael Jordan vs. Dominique Wilkins in 1988 when it comes to star power and it falls slightly short of Vince Carter’s 2000 performance in terms of influential breakthroughs, Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon combined to deliver an all-time classic. The two 2014 lottery picks needed two tie-breaking overtime rounds to determine a winner, with LaVine finally besting Gordon 299-291 out of a possible 300 total points.
Can the 2017 contest build on that momentum, or will it flop back to Earth? Sadly, LaVine opted against the possibility of a highly-anticipated rematch with Gordon before the Timberwolves guard suffered a season-ending ACL tear earlier this month. LaVine’s absence therefore opens the door for Gordon, who many observers felt was snubbed last year, and three other first-time competitors: DeAndre Jordan (Clippers), Glenn Robinson III (Pacers), and Derrick Jones (Suns).
Although the four-man field is somewhat light on name recognition, it offers good variety in style and physiques and absolutely shouldn’t be slept on. Gordon brings contest experience and a full bag of tricks. Jordan has a strong case as the most athletic 7-footer in the league with years of murderous “Lob City” finishes to his name. Robinson is a quick, smooth leaper who pounds the rim with force. And the freakish Jones, who has logged just 20 minutes this season through Tuesday, is best described as a “professional dunker” thanks to his creativity and pogostick bounce.
This year’s competition will play out with a standard format: each dunker gets two dunks in the opening round, contestants get three attempts at each dunk, and each dunk can earn a maximum score of 50. The top two dunkers will advance to the finals, where they will each execute two additional dunks. Highest score wins.
Now, let’s take a deeper look at all four competitors one by one.
Aaron Gordon, Magic
Gordon, 21, proved to be a natural performer last year, bathing comfortably in the attention and rising to the challenge against LaVine rather than shrinking from the pressure. Standing 6’9”, the Arizona product actually dunks more like a guard than a forward, displaying precise timing and exceptional burst off the court. In addition to his use of props like the Magic’s mascot and a hoverboard last year, he worked in an homage to Karl Malone, by touching his left hand to the back of his head, and went through the legs like J.R. Rider. And let’s not forget about the “Butt Dunk,” one of the most innovative looks in contest history.
While Gordon enters this year as a 1/2 favorite, according to Bovada, he is fighting through a bruised right foot that caused him to miss time last week. The biggest question: Does he have enough new material to impress the judges this year after burning through six different dunks in last year’s competition?
DeAndre Jordan, Clippers
Back in 2015, Jordan told SI.com that he would only enter the Slam Dunk Contest if he was selected as an All-Star. Two years later, the 2016 Olympic Gold Medal winner made good on his word after earning his first career All-Star selection. Since Chris Paul’s 2011 arrival in LA, Jordan has consistently ranked among the league’s most prolific dunkers thanks largely to his alley-oop tomahawks. Indeed, Jordan is on track to lead the league in dunks for the fourth straight year. His most famous slams—like his bodying of Brandon Knight—are viral hits that will be replayed for decades. Jordan’s joyful personality and his love of Batman could certainly factor into his overall act.
Jordan faces two major questions. First, how will his style play in the contest format? Will his muscular in-game dunks look pedestrian compared to more complex and graceful offerings or can he surprise the crowd with his ability to execute trickier material? Second, will his size work against him? Big men haven’t enjoyed much success in the Dunk Contest: The last center to win was Dwight Howard in 2008 and the last advance to the final round was JaVale McGee in 2011. Mason Plumlee (2015) and Andre Drummond (2016) both turned in forgettable performances in recent years, which could explain why Jordan is the 2017 longshot with 12/1 odds.
Glenn Robinson III, Pacers
One source close to the Slam Dunk Contest planning process described Robinson as “the quiet type you should keep an eye on.” The 23-year-old wing is easy to overlook: he was a second-round pick in 2014, he’s on his third team in three seasons, he didn’t really crack an NBA rotation until this year, and he plays in a small-market. Nevertheless, the Big Dog’s son has prototypical 6’6” size and experience with the contest format dating back to high school.
Skip ahead to the 2:30 mark in the above video to see him rise high to finish a transition lob and double-clutch to avoid a defender before finishing with both hands. He also once threw down a 360 during a Summer League game. The best hope for Robinson in the competition is to follow the Jeremy Evans playbook and lean on some never-before-seen props or gimmicks to help overcome his anonymity. Bovada gives him the third-best odds at 15/2.
Derrick Jones Jr., Suns
The buzz is steadily building around Jones Jr.—a 20-year-old undrafted rookie who went one-and-done at UNLV and spent time in the D-League this fall—and rightfully so. In a field of monster athletes, the Pennsylvania native stands out. Who needs props when you can fly so high you can stare down into the basket, execute reverse windmills through the legs, and soar over multiple humans en route to the rim?
While Jones is an NBA no-namer, he’s competed in numerous dunk contests since his prep days, distinguishing himself by finishing high degree-of-difficulty slams on the first try. The oddsmakers peg him as Gordon’s top challenger, with 3/2 odds, and a long gander at the four-minute-long highlight reel below makes one wonder whether he should be treated as the favorite.
To upset Gordon, Jones will need to mix in the requisite showmanship and personality to supplement his breathtaking leaping ability.