• The Slam Dunk Contest is desparately in need of new life and this year could provide it, with Dennis Smith Jr., Donovan Mitchell and Larry Nance Jr. set to compete.
By Ben Golliver
February 16, 2018

LOS ANGELES — The Slam Dunk Contest is in desperate need of a new heir to the throne.

In recent years, the NBA’s marquee All-Star Weekend event has enjoyed a nice renaissance thanks to Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon, whose classic 2016 duel stands as one of the best contests in NBA history. LaVine’s sensational 2015 debut and Gordon’s (unsuccessful) attempt at a drone-powered redemption in 2017 set the table for the Dunk Contest in those years too.

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Unfortunately, 2018 is a different story and one in need of new starring characters. LaVine, a two-time champ, missed the first 42 games of the season due to an ACL injury and won’t be competing. Gordon was initially invited back, but he had to scratch earlier this month due to a hip injury. And Glenn Robinson III, last year’s surprise winner after Gordon struggled badly in the first round, was unable to defend his crown following ankle surgery last fall.

Who is set to enter the void? Well, this year’s Slam Dunk Contest headliner is Indiana guard Victor Oladipo, the field’s only All-Star and its only returning participant. Joining Oladipo are Cleveland forward Larry Nance Jr., a second-generation Dunk Contest participant, and a pair of high-flying rookie guards: Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Dallas’s Dennis Smith Jr.

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Oddsmakers view this as an open race, with Bovada.LV tapping Smith (7/4) as the favorite followed by Mitchell (11/5), Nance (13/5) and Oladipo (4/1). Here’s a complete rundown, with video, of all four contestants.

Victor Oladipo, Pacers

Oladipo’s ability to make the most of an off-season trade from Oklahoma City with a breakout year in Indiana has been one of the league’s best storylines this season. The first-time All-Star and Most Improved Player candidate will get a second chance at adding a Dunk Contest belt to his résumé after finishing second to LaVine in 2015.

At 6’4”, Oladipo is a compact, power dunker who favors spinning tricks. In 2015, his best dunk was a “540” in which he double-clutched and then reached back for a reverse finish following a dizzying spin. That dunk drew a perfect “50” from the judges and led Oladipo to parade around the court with a sign that read “Mr. 360,” much to the crowd’s delight. Surely, Oladipo will go back to that portion of his toolbox on Saturday, given how quickly and effortlessly he is able to complete mid-air rotations.   

The rest of Oladipo’s 2015 contest was less impressive: He caught an alley-oop off the side of the glass for a one-handed 360, he tried and failed to complete a lefty dunk after jumping over a seated Elfrid Payton, and he ended with a simple windmill after taking an alley-oop off the back of the backboard. While the 25-year-old Oladipo still has plenty of bounce and charisma three years later, he’ll need more creativity—and perhaps some additional props or stunts—to keep up with the younger guards in this year’s competition.  

Larry Nance Jr. Cavaliers

Larry Nance Jr. is the son of Slam Dunk Contest royalty. In 1984, Suns forward Larry Nance Sr. completed nine dunks over three rounds to win the league’s first ever Dunk Contest, besting a star-studded nine-member field that included Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, and Clyde Drexler. Nance Sr. used his long arms to rock the cradle, he dunked two balls simultaneously, he tossed an alley-oop off the glass, and he swooped underneath the basket for reverse dunks. By modern standards, of course, his work looks pedestrian.

After multiple years of Dunk Contest hype were derailed by various injuries, Nance Jr. is finally healthy and ready to follow in his father’s footsteps. The 25-year-old Nance Jr. has compiled a long list of posterization victims during his three-year career thanks to his 6’9” frame, excellent springs, and fearlessness. His signature is his willingness to extend fully so that the ball is well above the rim at its apex, and those Statue of Liberty style dunks made him a Staples Center favorite during his two-plus seasons with the Lakers prior to his trade to the Cavaliers last week.

Nance Jr. appears headed for a boom-or-bust contest. He has three distinct advantages: 1) His size and length set him apart from his competitors, 2) He should enjoy a home-court advantage in L.A., and 3) his father’s place in NBA history sets up the obvious possibility of tribute dunks, old-school jerseys, and other heartwarming narrative-generating fare. However, one-handed tomahawks play a lot better over Kevin Durant than they do in the Dunk Contest, a friendly audience can only do so much, and retro nostalgia must be supplemented with title-worthy material. Nance Jr. also faces the classic big man challenge: His dunks will need to have enough technical elements so that they don’t come off looking simplistic or “easy” given his significant height advantage over his three competitors.

Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks

Pegged as a possible Rookie of the Year candidate during the preseason, Dennis Smith Jr. has quietly receded from the headlines for most of the 2017–18 season. Despite eye-popping physical tools, the 6’3” guard has struggled to score efficiently, and the Mavericks have been way out of the playoff picture all season. Other rookies like Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and even Lonzo Ball have gobbled up all of the attention.

That said, Smith is built to win a Dunk Contest: He explodes off the court, he consistently gets head-level to the rim, and he finishes like he’s trying to rip the basket off its stanchion. But don’t sleep on his technique! As this highlight reel from Team Flight Brothers shows, the 20-year-old Smith is capable of finishing with either hand after putting the ball between his legs in mid-air.

The Slam Dunk Contest buzz picked up for Smith during Las Vegas Summer League, as he consistently dazzled during lay-up lines and in games. At his best, he boasts a rare combination of grace and might that has consistently drawn comparisons to Steve Francis and a young Derrick Rose.

Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

If there’s one major downside to the composition of this year’s field, it’s that Oladipo, Smith and the 6’3” Donovan Mitchell are cut from a similar cloth as smaller guards with thunderous potential. It seems inevitable that Saturday’s contest will start to blur together because the field is lacking a long-and-lean pogo-stick like 2017 runner-up Derrick Jones Jr., a true center like DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond, or a mighty mouse candidate like Nate Robinson.

However, Mitchell, a late addition once Gordon scratched, hasn’t had any problem separating himself from the pack this season. He’s leading all rookies in scoring, pushing Simmons for Rookie of the Year honors, and doing more than his fair share to keep Utah in the West’s playoff picture. His leaping ability is a huge part of his appeal: Mitchell bounced high against the Lakers for a put-back slam that stands as one of the NBA’s best dunks this season, he’s completed one-handed alley-oops and windmills in games, and he tracks towards the rim like a heat-seeking missile. He’s not a League Pass favorite by accident.  

Will Mitchell’s dunking style translate to the contest format? The audience has been spoiled by LaVine, Gordon, Robinson III and others in recent years, and to keep pace Mitchell will need to display a level of creativity and intricacy that he hasn’t yet shown in games. No matter how forcefully delivered, a windmill isn’t going to cut it on Saturday.

SI.com prediction: Smith over Nance Jr. in the finals

Given that Nance has openly campaigned to be in the Dunk Contest for years, it seems like a safe bet that he’ll have a trick or two up his sleeve to ensure that he advances out of the first round.

Of the three smaller guards, Smith boasts the most pop and has the deepest catalog of high degree-of-difficulty dunks on tape. Back in 2014, Washington’s John Wall combined leaping ability, athleticism and just enough tricks with the ball to lead the East to the Slam Dunk Contest title (it was a team event that year). If Smith can handle the nerves that come with his first time on the NBA’s big stage, he should take home the crown by following a Wall-like formula.

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