The 10 Most Underrated Dunkers of All-Time
“In The Face.”
It’s every basketball fans dream, driving the lane, catching air, and throwing down a vicious dunk. But frankly, the percentage of human beings that can dunk is small. That’s one of the reasons why we marvel at the spectacle of a slam dunk. There is no official history of dunking but there are key milestones.
- 1944–Bob Kurland, a seven-foot Oklahoma A&M player is credited with the first official dunk in basketball history. It took place versus Temple University.
- 1960’s–Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, two of the ‘Top 50 Players’ in the history of the league, dunk in-game with regularity.
- 1960 to 1971–Playground legends Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins, Earl “The G.O.A.T.” Manigault, and Julius “Dr.J.” Erving skyed at Harlem’s famous Rucker Park.
- 1967–The American Basketball Association (ABA) debuts a more free-flowing style of play, encouraging all players to dunk in-game.
- 1967–The dominance of UCLA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar convinces the NCAA to ban “dunking” from the college game.
- 1976–The ABA holds the first official dunk contest at its All-Star game. Dr. J defeated David Thompson with a dunk from the free-throw line.
- 1984–Cavaliers’ forward Larry Nance wins the first NBA dunk contest.
- 1985–The “Human Highlight Film” Dominique Wilkins wins his first NBA dunk contest in Indianapolis.
- 1987–Michael “Air” Jordan wins his first NBA dunk contest in Seattle.
- 1988–Dominque and Michael square off in an epic dunk contest in Chicago during All-Star weekend. MJ wins with his signature free throw line dunk.
- 2000–Raptors G Vince Carter brings the dunk contest back to prominence with a once-in-a-lifetime All-Star Weekend performance.
- 2016–T’Wolves Zach LaVine and the Magic’s Aaron Gordon go ‘dunk for dunk’ with several perfect scores and unimaginable creativity.
But what about the great dunkers who are overlooked? Our list of high flyers won only two NBA Slam Dunk Contests and threw down some of the most memorable in-game dunks ever. In no particular order, here’s our list of The 10 Most Underrated Dunkers.
10. David Thompson
Denver Nuggets and Seattle SuperSonics (1975-84)
FTS appreciates the pioneers of a sport or in this case, the dunk. Without greats like ‘The Hawk,’ ‘Dr. J,’ and David Thompson, the original ‘Skywalker,’ there wouldn’t be a Jordan, Vinsanity or Blake Griffin. David Thompson and Dr. J were the finalists in the first professional dunk contest in the ABA in 1976. According to urban legend, while Thompson was playing at North Carolina State, he could snag a quarter off the top of the backboard. If anybody could do it, Thompson could.
On the court, there are few players in NBA history as explosive as Thompson. He had a 44-inch vertical and great hang time. Basketball fans hadn’t ever seen the acrobatic plays on television Thompson made with regularity. Especially at 6’4. Thompson was a collegiate player of the year in 1975 and the number one draft pick in both the ABA and NBA. His career accolades include Rookie of the Year (1975), MVP of both the ABA and NBA All-Star Games, and one of only 25 players to score more than 60 points in a single NBA game. Check out that 360 dunk in 1976, talk about innovative.
9. Darryl Dawkins
Philadelphia Sixers, New Jersey Nets, Utah Jazz, and Detroit Pistons (1975-89)
Darryl Dawkins gets huge style points for his contribution to the dunk. Dawkins aka “Chocolate Thunder’s” dunks were so famous, he gave them names. The names included ‘Go-Rilla,’ the ‘In-You-Face Disgrace,’ the ‘Cover Your Head,’ and the ‘Yo-Mama.’ Dawkins was also credited to be the first NBA player to break a backboard in-game. He broke two backboards in separate games in 1979. He called his first backboard-breaking dunk, “The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying.” But he also referred to them as “Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam.”
Dawkins was the first player ever to be taken in the NBA Draft straight out of high school, paving the way for KG, Kobe, and LeBron. He was drafted fifth overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1975 after a stellar high school career in Florida. Dawkins combined style with power and was a natural fit to be a member of the Harlem Globetrotters.
8. Shawn Kemp
Seattle SuperSonics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trailblazers, and Orlando Magic (1989-2003)
If you’re too young to have seen Shawn Kemp aka the ‘ReignMan’ before the weight gain, drug issues, and child support problems, his dunks invented ‘Fear of Missing Out (F.O.M.O.)‘ Kemp, like Kobe, KG, and LeBron went straight to the NBA from high school in 1989. But Kemp accomplished the feat years before. He was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics and almost immediately began attacking NBA rims and frontcourts. Kemp was one of the first modern power forwards. He was 6’10, strong, and could run up and down the floor like a gazelle.
Kemp competed in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest four times (1990, 1991, 1992, 1994), coming in second to Dee Brown’s Forearm Over the Eyes dunk in 1991. But the ‘Reign Man’ left a lasting impression on NBA fans. The man was as flexible as Gumby. In addition, Kemp (in our opinion) may be the best in-game dunker in the history of the league. He routinely posterized defenders (Google “Lister Blister”) and formed one of the most formidable alley-oop combos ever in the NBA with Seattle teammate PG Gary Payton.
7. James “Flight” White
Euroleague, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, and New York Knicks (2006-13)
James White’s ability to defy gravity first came to basketball fans’ attention in 2006. He competed in the NCAA CBB Slam Dunk contest and pulled off two dunks we never saw before. White was able to throw down a two-handed dunk from the free throw line and a one-handed windmill from the same distance. Dr. J, Michael Jordan, and others dunked from the free-throw line before, but they needed to fully extend with one hand to dunk it. White vertical (between 42-44′) allowed him to get creative in the air.
White didn’t have a memorable NBA career, but he did reportedly go between the legs from the free-throw line (ala Zach LaVine) in 2001 and repeated his famous free-throw dunks in both Euroleague and the 2013 NBA Dunk Contest.
6. Desmond Mason
Bucks, Sonics/Thunder, Pelicans, and Kings (2000-10)
In between Vince Carter’s earth-shattering performance in 2000 and LaVine vs. Gordon in 2016, the NBA Contest had lean years. No offense, but champions Fred Jones (2004), Jeremy Evans (2012), and Terence Ross (2013) didn’t exactly light up the basketball world. Thankfully, there were some moments of greatness, namely Jason Richardson and Desmond Mason.
Mason was a 6-7 small forward was drafted by the Seattle Sonics in 2000. During his 11-year career, he averaged 12.1 PPG and came off the bench. Mason came out of nowhere on All-Star Weekend 2001 in Washington D.C. to win his first dunking crown. Mason’s impressive dunk over teammate Rashard Lewis got a 50.
In 2003, ’01 Dunk Champion Desmond Mason faced off against ’02 Champion Jason Richardson. Whoever won would be a 2x NBA Dunk Champion. Mason’s third dunk in the finals was a left-handed between the legs dunk. It was a first of its kind and nearly won him the contest. But Richardson scored a 50 with a back-to-front between the legs dunk from the baseline. So close, but so far.
5. Gerald Green
Celtics, Suns, Heat, Pacers, Mavericks, Nets, Rockets, and Timberwolves (2005-18)
Green was one of the last players drafted into the NBA straight from high school. He’s played for nine different NBA franchises over a ten-year career. Perhaps more seasoning at Oklahoma State University, where he signed a letter of intent in 2005, would’ve helped his career. Green was most successful during his two years with the Phoenix Suns. He scored (14.0 PPG) and appeared to find a home.
Straight hops. That’s what defines Gerald Green. According to our research, Michael “Air” Jordan at his peak had a 46′-48′-inch vertical. We would argue NBA journeyman Gerald Green’s vertical is higher. His pre-draft measurement was reportedly 39′ inches, but how do we explain Green’s freaky ability to get his whole head over the rim? Green is only one inch taller than MJ. That’s got to be at least a 40-41″ inch vertical off the ground. The Houston Texas native won the 2007 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, with a windmill over a table and played tribute to Dee Brown’s Blind dunk over 5’9″ Nate Robinson. In our opinion, his in-game alley-oop windmill with the New Jersey Nets may be the highest NBA dunk we have seen.
4. Jordan Kilganon “King of Slam”
YouTube, TNT’s The Dunk King (2017)
If you’ve never heard of Jordan Kilganon, where have you been? The 6’1″ athlete from Ontario, Canada is a YouTube sensation and one of the first professional dunkers in the sport. Jordan exhibits flexibility and elevation like few dunkers ever. Kilganon was a multi-sport phenom in Canada and could have played professional volleyball and potentially basketball. Yes, Kilganon was named after Michael, so he had to be talented, but no one could have expected his level of notoriety.
Jordan stands out for two other reasons. One, his style. He wears funky fashions when he dunks and oh did we mention, he dunks in skinny jeans. Two, Kilganon is freakishly creative. He has legitimately pulled off dunks never seen before. Kilganon invented the Scorpion dunk that needs to be seen to be believed. It shocks judges in competition and NBA players during All-Star weekend when he was invited to the teams’ open practice in 2016. In an interview with ESPN, Kilganon said, “There [are] about 100 dunks that I’ve been the first to do, which is a lot more than anybody else.” You know what, we believe him.
3. Aaron Gordon
Orlando Magic (2014-Present)
Aaron Gordon was another in a long line of talented players from the University of Arizona. Gordon was a 6″9′ PF who showed flashes of athletic prowess in the Pac-12. He was drafted fourth overall by the Orlando Magic in 2014 as a project. He only played one season in Tucson, so his NBA game needed time to develop. But Gordon was hiding a rare skill, the ability to develop and pull off some of the most creative dunks ever seen.
It was 2016 and the participants for the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in Toronto where defending champion Zach LaVine of the Timberwolves, Andre Drummond of the Pistons, Will Barton of the Nuggets, and Aaron Gordon. LaVine was the heavy favorite after his 2015 performance punctuated by his gravity-defying between the legs Space Jam dunk. Then Aaron Gordon took the floor and what happened in the dunk finals with LaVine will never be seen again. It was a dunk duel with several perfect scores and unbelievable creativity by both competitors. They brought out mascots, hoverboards, and windmills from the free-throw line. The contest was elevated to a level impossible to duplicate.
Why is Gordon underrated? He’s only redefined the dunk game once. He lost in the dunk-off with LaVine and this year (2018) was scheduled to compete but had to pull out due to injury. Coincidentally Zach has returned from an ACL injury to his knee this season too. The NBA and its fans are hoping this pair competes against each other one more time.
2. Amar’e Stoudemire
Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, Miami Heat
We may have cracked the dunk code, maybe you don’t need to go to college to be a great dunker. Like Chocolate Thunder, Shawn Kemp, and Gerald Green, Amar’e Stoudemire jumped from high school in Orlando, FL to the NBA. Stoudemire was drafted ninth overall by the Phoenix Suns in 2002. He captured the ’03 NBA Rookie of the Year award at just 20 years old. In eight seasons in Phoenix Stoudemire formed one the best pick and roll duos in NBA league history with two-time league MVP Steve Nash and was a five-time All-Star.
Stoudemire competed in the NBA Dunk Contest in 2005 and had a memorable soccer style header alley-oop. But he gets on this list for his in-game dunks. With the Suns and Knicks, STAT put more defenders on posters than we can count. Paging Michael Olowokandi. Even after microfracture surgery on his knee, a devastating procedure, Stoudemire was able to punish defenders in the air as a New York Knick.
1. Mr. 720 Taurian Fontenette; The “Air Up There”
And1 Mixtape Tour, Ball4Real, Dallas Generals
All that needs to be said about Taurian Fontenette is “720.” The And1 Mixtape Tour legend is the only person to successfully perform and land a 720 in a game. If anyone else has video proof of someone performing two full rotations in the air and dunking, hit us up. A solid argument can be made that the “Air Up There,” as he is known is the greatest dunker of all time. The Texas native has been able to complete an “axle rider,” a 360 between your legs since he attended high school in the early 2000s.
So there you have it. There’s our list of most underrated dunkers in basketball. Sure, we may have missed someone, perhaps incoming Duke freshman Zion Williamson, but that what our readers are for. Let us know your choice.