The NBA will hold another starless slam dunk contest Saturday in Salt Lake City, but at least the four-man field features some of this season’s most prolific dunkers.
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After a judging controversy in 2020, a fan-less event because of the pandemic in 2021 and a gimmick-heavy show last year, it’s no great surprise that franchise players and top lottery picks decided to shun the once-vaunted event. Nevertheless, this year’s unheralded participants just might be able to sail over the bar of low expectations. The strength of this field is experience — three of its members rank in the top 35 for dunks during the 2022-23 season. Here’s a quick rundown of what to expect from each participant.
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Kenyon Martin Jr., Rockets
Kenyon Martin Jr. wasn’t a No. 1 pick like his father, a bruising forward who went first in 2000 and made the 2004 all-star team, but his athletic genes are evident. The 2020 second-round pick moved into the Rockets’ starting lineup in mid-January, and he’s posting career highs of 11.7 points and 5.5 rebounds in his third season. A bouncy 6-foot-6 forward who slams with his left hand, the 22-year-old ranks seventh with 122 dunks this season, placing him ahead of players such as Anthony Davis, Deandre Ayton, LeBron James and Jayson Tatum.
His best work combines grace and power, and he took off from just inside the free throw line to finish a transition dunk through traffic during a January game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Hopefully Martin takes a more by-the-book approach to the contest than teammate Jalen Green, who sported trite NFT jewelry and crumbled in the spotlight last year.
The 24-year-old has been a favorite of the mixtape circuit since he was a Virginia high-schooler. Listed at 6-2 with a 43½-inch vertical leap, McClung packs a Spud Webb-like explosiveness into his double-clutch efforts and alley-oop finishes. McClung’s rare physical profile hasn’t translated to NBA success; he went undrafted in 2021 after spending two seasons at Georgetown and one at Texas Tech. Last season, he made appearances for the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, but he had spent this year in the G League before signing a two-way contract with the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday.
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Don’t dismiss McClung’s chances in the contest because of his limited résumé. His hops have made him a fan favorite at the Las Vegas Summer League, and he carries himself with the type of brash confidence that appeals to judges and a live audience.
Trey Murphy III, Pelicans
Murphy, 22, is best known as a shooter, given that he’s hitting 40.3 percent of his three-pointers in his second season with New Orleans after shooting 9 for 19 from beyond the arc in a first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns as a rookie. But the 2021 first-round pick is 6-8 and blessed with long arms, good bounce and plenty of in-air creativity.
Though he can’t match Williamson, New Orleans’s franchise player, when it comes to sheer power and mesmerizing aerials, Murphy’s 62 dunks this season surpass his teammate’s total by 20. Murphy is averaging 13.1 points and 3.7 rebounds, and he’s liable to be a mainstay in the Pelicans’ playoff rotation for years. This should be a nice stage for the former Virginia Cavalier to prove he’s more than just another 3-and-D wing.
No center has won the dunk contest since Howard in 2008, so give Sims credit for taking a shot. A 2021 second-round pick who is in his second season with New York, the 24-year-old has played limited minutes in a bench role this season, averaging 3.7 points and 4.9 rebounds. Still, he managed to throw down 59 dunks in just 745 minutes entering Wednesday, placing him 33rd leaguewide and second on the Knicks. In fact, Sims has dunked more often than Obi Toppin, the Knicks forward who won last year’s dunk contest.
The 6-10 Sims is agile for a big man, and a recent highlight video showed he can nearly touch the top of the backboard and easily gets his head above rim-level. His repertoire includes two-handed windmills, one-handed pile-drivers and his signature slam in which he looks down through the basket while finishing.
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