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David Banks/Associated Press
Nothing better captures the absurdity of NBA athleticism than a rim-rocking dunk.
Monster jams ignite arenas, cause viral chaos and, in some cases, even bring about game-changing momentum shifts.
In essence, these are aerial acrobatics performed by supersized, world-class athletes. Each should probably be considered a sight to behold. But as any hoops fan can attest, it takes a special kind of slam to get you out of your seat.
The following five players are—subjectively speaking—most capable of delivering electrifying dunks at their positions. There are no written rules for evaluating basketball’s above-the-rim artworks, so this exercise looks at things like highlights, stylistic approaches, dunk frequency and physical gifts to identify basketball’s best dunkers.
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Dennis Smith Jr. is a 21-year-old with two NBA seasons under his belt, and already his hops are legendary.
While his aerial explosions are surely the result of countless hours in the gym, it would almost be easier to buy a straight-from-Hollywood origin story. Say, for instance, if he was exposed to radioactive waste at an early age and gained the power of levitation, then his unreal dunk reel becomes more understandable.
That didn’t happen, of course, but this did: Smith had an extra ligament in his knee that gave him Wolverine-esque recovery speed. In 2015, he tore his ACL. A few days after surgery, he was lifting weights. Within weeks, he was busy piercing the clouds.
“I had to slow him down,” his father, Dennis Smith Sr., told Fox Sports’ Aaron Torres. “He was dunking two weeks after he got out [of surgery].”
Smith sparked a viral wildfire on the 2017 predraft workout circuit by skying for a 48-inch vertical leap. He was in the dunk contest as a rookie, and while he somehow didn’t escape the opening round, he hammered home the dunk of the night.
He has everything in his aerial arsenal and then some. His sky-walking alone can drop jaws, and then the way he punctuates his flights with power, grace or a combination of the two is what makes this position his.
That’s no small feat, either, since De’Aaron Fox, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Ben Simmons and (when healthy) John Wall are all elite rim-punishers, too. (Ja Morant should quickly qualify as such as well.) But the quantity and quality of Smith’s frequent flyer mileage are a cut above his fellow floor generals.
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The following quote will sound blasphemous to more than a few of you. But rather than race to the comments section for your all-caps rebuttal, just take a second to consider it and we’ll explain its significance.
“Zach LaVine … is no Michael Jordan. No, Zach LaVine is better than Michael Jordan. And probably Vince Carter and Dominique Wilkins, also.”
Sounds like the hottest of hot takes, right? Probably something drummed up by a teenager in his parents’ basement who only knows Jordan and Wilkins by YouTube highlights and Carter by his late-career trip around the league as a spot-up shooter.
In reality, it’s the opposite of ill-informed sensationalism. Rather, it’s the opinion of Bulls.com scribe Sam Smith, the 2012 Curt Gowdy Media Award winner and best-selling author who has covered this game for more than three decades.
Smith’s take is simple. Look at LaVine’s work in the 2015 and 2016 dunk contests, and it’s “arguably some of the most aesthetic and athletic performances in the history of the contest.” He jumped from the free-throw line three times in the 2016 event alone, once finishing an alley-oop from there and later going between the legs.
LaVine has enough lift—46-inch vertical at a predraft workout—that he can get just as creative in-game, as seen in the ridiculous reel above. If he has a head of steam and a crease to the cup, he’ll be trending momentarily.
Post-ACL LaVine looks as spry as ever (69 dunks in 63 games last season), meaning the shooting guard throne is comfortably his despite sharing a position with aerial artists like Donovan Mitchell, DeMar DeRozan and Victor Oladipo.
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Anyone bemoaning the lack of killer nicknames in modern sports should introduce themselves to “Airplane Mode” Derrick Jones Jr.
Beyond simply sounding (and looking) cool, it perfectly captures Jones’ hardwood identity. He’s yet to meet a lob pass he can’t crush—he arguably unleashed the dunk of the season when he skied to corral an alley-oop pass and threw it one-handed through the rim without making contact, Blake Griffin-style—and the only thing keeping his body count in check is defenders already scram when he they see him on the runway.
“I look at him, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god,'” Jones’ former Miami Heat teammate, Wayne Ellington, told reporters in 2018. “… He flies, man. He gets so much lift and he’s so creative when he’s in the air, it’s unbelievable. The athleticism is unlimited.”
Jones’ above-the-rim acrobatics are impossible to miss and so impressive the NBA considered him for the 2017 dunk contest before his first big league dunk. He had wrecked enough rims for the G League Northern Arizona Suns to draw the NBA’s attention, he told azcentral sports’ Doug Haller. Jones also told Haller he has a 48-inch vertical, which is both mind-boggling and fitting, given his highlights.
As a player, the long-limbed, 6’7″ swingman is still finding his niche. His 60 appearances in 2018-19 for the Heat were more than twice what he had his first two seasons combined.
But as a rim-rocker, he’s somehow an easy choice at a position that also houses LeBron James, Paul George, Miles Bridges and Andrew Wiggins. It’s a loaded list, but no one on it can match Jones’ combination of explosiveness, ferocity and creativity.
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Some of the best dunking power forwards are all about power and tenacity.
Aaron Gordon can go that route if he wants, but he separates from the pack by also possessing the hops and showmanship of a perimeter player.
At the 2014 combine, he had the highest vertical leap the NBA could measure. At the iconic 2016 dunk contest, his under-the-legs, over-the-mascot masterpiece witnessed him take creativity to a new level while also soaring high enough to secure an Olympic medal.
He didn’t capture that contest’s crown, but the high-flyer who did says it was a coin flip.
“That was one of the best dunk contests ever,” Zach LaVine said, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. “His dunks were just as good as mine, if not better. It just came down to what the judges liked.”
Gordon has been taking out his frustration on unfortunate rims and risk-taking interior defenders ever since.
He’ll hammer some home so hard you can’t help but conjure images of a prime Shawn Kemp. But Gordon might come down the next time and finesse his way to an in-game 360.
His dunking range—reminiscent of a younger Blake Griffin—helps Gordon claim this position despite strong competition from John Collins (maybe the league’s best lob finisher) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (who can and does dunk from anywhere). It’s also worth mentioning Zion Williamson here, since he might come for the crown already this season.
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Monster dunks run in the Nance family. Before Larry Jr. came along with his eye-popping brand of high-flying hammers, his father, Larry Sr., slammed and jammed his way through a 13-year NBA career during which he won the league’s first-ever dunk contest.
Junior even honored Senior by breaking out his dunk—in his jersey—at the 2018 contest, which made them the first father-son duo to compete.
“I’m Larry Nance Jr. I’m very proud of that, so I wanted to be like my dad every step of the way and now I’m here at the NBA dunk contest,” Nance told reporters. “What were the odds of that? It’s pretty cool.”
Nance jumps like he’s powered by jet fuel, which doesn’t seem fair for a 6’9″, 230-pounder.
At the 2015 combine, he recorded a 37.5-inch max vertical, which tied for the highest among all bigs. Turns out, that might have shorted him. ESPN’s Baxter Holmes reported the Los Angeles Lakers “once measured the younger Nance’s vertical leap at 44 inches, though they believed their devices weren’t calibrated correctly and that he can actually jump higher than that.”
Nance’s get-up is somehow both quick and long-lasting. He doesn’t need much gather to rise, and once he’s up there, he seems to float. The whole process seems effortless until he cocks back and unleashes a thunderous throw-down. More than a few defenders have tried to challenge him, and all could now explain the error in their judgement.
His place atop the center spot feels comfortable for now. DeAndre Jordan and JaVale McGee have cut down their flight plans after entering their 30s, and it could take some time before Mitchell Robinson or Jaxson Hayes threatens to take pole position.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.