*This is Part 4 to my series on the perfect NBA skill-set.
First, I chose overall skills, next I’m diving into each skill and breaking down the best/most iconic players for each move/style.
In case you missed it – here were parts 1-3:
Ball-handling & Dribbling:
Dunks and Layups:
As I begin here, I realize I might be one of the most under-qualified people to ever write about dunking a basketball! Sure, I can throw one down on a 9-foot hoop. I even have the hops to dunk a tennis ball on a 10-foot hoop! Not as impressive once I type it out, I know. But I can appreciate the art of dunking the basketball. A good ol’ fashioned SLAM-DUNK.*
* “Quick tangent. After watching all of the dunking highlights for this blog threw me into a bit of a rabbit hole. When did we all stop referring to dunks as slam-dunks, and drop the slam? Dunks is quicker and more compact – but I think we lost something by dropping the ‘slam’.” – Small excerpt that remains relvevant from my Part 1 of this blog series.
An an impressive dunk can energize a home-crowd from a slumber into a raucous environment. A devastating steal and ensuing breakaway dunk can have the reverse effect, sucking all of the energy and air out of arena, making it feel quiet and empty. Rhode Island basketball fans know that exact feeling as recently as early March courtesy of Obi Toppin and his #3 Dayton Flyers. Regardless of my inability to perform these acrobatic dunks, I can certainly appreciate and evaluate the work.
OVERALL: Michael Jordan
MJ is MJ, and his spot here should be no surprise. His complete game and competitive nature are the core traits that make him the GOAT… BUT, his athleticism and ability to adjust for incredible finishes mid-air are what made him Air-Jordan.
For anyone crazy enough to doubt this selection – just watch this incredible non-dunk finish from the ‘91 NBA Finals:
No further explanation necessary.
Layup: Julius Erving (& Rajon Rondo)
A ton of great options here, but I’m going to cheat a little bit and pick both the correct pick (Julius Erving) and the homer pick (Rajon Rondo). Dr J’s layup in the above video is arguably one of the most impressive moves of all-time. That move standalone would warrant the top spot, but then on top of that, he’s got the signature finger roll to boot! Unreal finisher at the rim, and for a guy thought of as just a dunker, Dr. J is one of the most underrated overall NBA players of all-time.
Rondo’s layup package is unreal, with so many smooth mid-air ball fakes that are fake out fans and cameramen alike just as much as his defenders. I feel like many Celtics fans have already forgotten how great prime-time/playoff Rondo was at his peak, further warranting his spot here.
No honorable mention here, since I cheated and sort of picked 2.
Dunk in Traffic: Shawn Kemp
Way too many good options here. The NBA is full of utter-posterizations, but this Shawn Kemp dunk is my favorite of all-time. Not only does he finish the dunk over a taller player (Alton Lister), but he doesn’t get a foul called, AND STILL has time to gloat in the fallen defender’s face!
Side note, the defender’s height and prowess absolutely matter for these poster-dunks. One reason (among other regionally-biased reasons) why LeBron’s dunk over a 35-year old, (6 foot 2!!) Jason Terry is severely overrated. I’m not even posting a link to that youtube video. That’s how much I dislike it, and don’t want it to get even a single more view than it already has.
Breakaway Dunk: LeBron James
I know I just bashed LeBron a little bit, but I just had to put him somewhere on this list. I think his classic breakaway dunk is one of the most underrated dunks in the league. The speed, the power, the smoothness. It’s so well done, time and time again that I truly think we now take it for granted. I linked his first dunk, from his NBA debut back in 2003. Years later, that tomahawk jam is essentially HIS.
Have you ever dunked too hard on a 9-foot (or 8 foot) rim and hurt yourself to the point where you have to stop dunking? I’ve almost broken my hand and wrist several times trying out windmills and having wild dunk contests with friends. LeBron absolutely JAMS during his breakaways on a regular basis, and I want to publicly give him credit for all of the pain he’s enduring by doing so. Kudos to you, LeBron.
Honorable mention to Steve Francis, one of my inexplicable favorite players of all-time. Plays like this are why I begged my parents to get me his jersey for years. One year, while he was on the Magic, they finally did.
Also, give Zion more than 19 games in the NBA and he’ll leapfrog Stevie Franchise as the honorable mention here.
Dunk Contest: Vince Carter
Thought I forgot about Vince?! Think again! Initially I couldn’t decide on where to put him, but I think Dunk Contest Vince is one of the coolest versions of any player on this list. Also, just mentioned Steve Francis, so a great segue to mention the 2000 NBA Dunk Contest and plug this ESPN oral history piece by Jason Buckland: https://www.espn.com/nba/allstar2014/story/_/page/dunk-2000/oral-history-2000-nba-slam-dunk-contest
Honorable mention to Dominique Wilkins, ½ of the epic 80’s NBA Dunk Contest rivalry with MJ. ‘Nique wasn’t nicknamed the ‘Human Highlight Reel’ for nothing. This 1985 performance by Wilkins was incredible at the time, and still holds up to this day. Here’s the whole contest if you’re up for it.
I wanted to add in a few honorable mention categories for non-superstars who excel at a few random areas. Recency-bias is definitely a factor – but feel free to comment or @ me on twitter on why Jamario Moon deserves a spot somewhere on this list:
Traditional Dunk Converted into a Trick Layup: John Wall
Here’s a big take – I miss John Wall. I’m genuinely stoked for his return to the NBA, health permitting. With a level of athleticism that’s top of the class, even in the most athletic era of NBA point guards, he’s a must-watch #NBALeaguePass guy (when the Wizards aren’t bottom-feeders).
This category might be a little redundant, considering layup was listed above, but once you see the Wall 360 you’ll understand. To react to a defender and pull that off in mid-air, is just not something my brain and body can process as humanly possible. I’m basically short-circuiting as I type this. Does. Not. Compute.
Power-Dunk: Larry Johnson – AKA Grandmama
One of my first NBA jerseys was Larry Johnson! Those 90’s Hornets gear was HOT, and I was a cool-as-heck hype beast of a toddler. Great call by my parents, because Larry Johnson was a man’s man on the court and in the dunk contests. These dunks are VIOLENT. The force in which he throws don’t can’t be downplayed. It’s a shame his career was cut short due to injuries, because he was an absolute monster power forward for the Hornets. Watching his dunks put me into an angry mood. These highlights make me want to slap the top of every door frame I encounter, grimacing with pain as if I’m dunking myself.
Honorable mention to Zion Williamson. I feel like when we see him for anywhere close to a full season’s body of work, he’ll have plenty of in-game film to warrant a spot here.
Under 6-Foot Dunker: Nate Robinson
Lowkey a LOADED category. Listen, I really wanted to put Spud Webb here, in fact I put his name before I fell into a Youtube rabbit hole. I think I was over-correcting for perceived recency-bias in assuming Webb was the guy here. In fairness to the other short-guy dunkers, I re-watched the relevant tape, and I came to the conclusion that I just can’t not pick Nate Robinson. Webb certainly paved the way, but Robinson’s dunks are legitimately light-years ahead. Don’t believe me? I’ll drop Webb’s 1986 Dunk Contest highlights and let you decide if I made a grave mistake here.
In-Game Dunker: Gerald Green
Realistically, I could’ve chosen a number of players here who have shown flashes of greatness with posterizations in the most unlikely of moments. Why Gerald Green? Because he’s one of the best raw athletes I’ve seen live, who can basically fly. His alley-oop windmill in the middle of a 4-point game against the Rockets is my personal favorite Gerald Green dunk, but others qualify as well.
Honorable mention to Vince Carter (who is not allowed to win another category, but would probably deserve it for this):
Up-And-Coming In-Game Dunker: Obi Toppin
Obi Toppin with the best dunk of the season. Surely the first between-the-legs dunk I’ve ever seen in a game. @otoppin1 pic.twitter.com/BE1egy8MNc
— David Jablonski (@DavidPJablonski) December 29, 2018
Zion Williamson came in last season, and would have earned this title prior to a single second logged as a professional. This year, Obi Toppin is the rising star to make a name for himself as a rookie with a vicious in-game dunk as soon as he gets the chance. If I could place a futures bet on 2021 Slam Dunk contest performers (and even as a potential winner) I would LOVE to ride the Obi Toppin train and go all in on him. The odds would be crazy compared to what they’ll be in February 2021. I hope I get called out for this prediction if Toppin doesn’t even get asked to be in the Dunk Contest next year or ever. If you’re still entertaining my thoughts in 2021, chances are the clutches of the quarantine are still in effect.
For any non-A10 fans, or anyone unaware, Obi Toppin is AWESOME. Also, please note how early I was on-board the Toppin for NPOY train:
LOVE ME SOME OBI TOPPIN / MID-MAJOR CONTENT!!! My ‘slightly too early’ 2020 National Player of the Year.
Major kudos to @GBrianBennett for an awesome piece on an A10 legend.
— Small State Big Takes Podcast (@SmallStateTakes) February 4, 2020
Missed Dunk: Andre Iguodala
An underrated dunker of the past 15 years, Andre Iguodala is a rightful player to be listed among these others. When I think of a wild in-game missed dunk that could have been historic moment Iggy’s missed dunk against the Pelicans is the first that comes to my mind. The dunk itself isn’t the mastery here, but rather the handles and guts to even attempt this in an actual NBA game.
(In the world of dunks and layups, we’ll leave it at this for now. For anyone wondering why I’ve given no love to big-men and shots in the post, don’t worry, I’m dedicating a blog to just post-moves.)
Next skill up: Passing. Stay on your toes, because I’m ready to make a no-look bounce pass into some deep cuts for this one.
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-Mike Gilligan (@BigGilli, and @SmallStateTakes Podcast) – https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/small-state-big-takes/id1432138166