CHARLOTTE — It takes more than one classic dunk to make a classic Slam Dunk Contest, and that’s why this year’s event will soon be forgotten.
Hamidou Diallo was a crowd favorite and a worthy champion, springing over 7-foot-1 Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal to finish a Vince Carter-style elbow dunk that deservedly drew a perfect “50” from the judges. But the little-known Oklahoma City Thunder guard needed some real competition, and Dennis Smith Jr., John Collins and Miles Bridges simply weren’t up to the task on a night filled with good ideas poorly executed.
As Smith Jr. flubbed attempt after attempt due to tired legs, scattered boos rang out across a flat Spectrum Center crowd during the final round. Even with a hearty serving of celebrity helpers like O’Neal, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, J. Cole, and Quavo, this wasn’t the electric showcase atmosphere that Dunk Contest enthusiasts have come to expect.
Of course, there’s one man who is perfectly suited to prevent another underwhelming contest next year in Chicago: Zion Williamson.
Duke’s heavily-hyped freshman drew raves reviews from prominent NBA players throughout Saturday morning’s media day. Rookie of the year favorite Luka Doncic called Williamson a “monster,” LeBron James praised his “humble” and single-minded approach, and Curry lavished praise on his nonstop “motor.” By the time Saturday evening rolled around, one couldn’t help but wish Williamson would hop in a helicopter in Durham, where the Blue Devils beat North Carolina State, and swoop into Charlotte to save the day.
The 18-year-old Williamson is an intriguing NBA prospect — the consensus top pick in the upcoming draft — and a tantalizing Dunk Contest participant. Listed at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, Williamson cruises through the air like a jumbo-sized, heat-seaking missile. As a dunker, he’s a new-age hybrid of Carter and young Dwight Howard. His imposing frame pulsates with force from takeoff to landing, but his natural athleticism adds a lighter flair.
It’s impossible to watch Williamson’s best YouTube work without scrunching up your face out of pity for the rim. In terms of sheer buzz, Williamson might be the only player to come close to matching Zach LaVine, a two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion, during the social media era.
Williamson has the physique and the burgeoning fame to headline the 2020 Slam Dunk Contest, but he also has the history. Back in 2016, Williamson and Diallo faced off in the Under Armour Elite 24 Dunk Contest in New York, with Williamson emerging victorious.
As he clutched his trophy after making the media rounds on Saturday night, Diallo said he remembered his previous showdown with Williamson and was open to the idea of a rematch at the United Center in 2020.
“Oh, that’s tough,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
But Williamson and Diallo would only represent half of the ideal four-man field. The modern gold standard for Dunk Contests came in 2016, when LaVine squeaked past Aaron Gordon in a 15-round heavyweight fight. Since then, LaVine’s career was temporarily sidetracked by a torn ACL and Gordon sputtered out in the 2017 contest with a failed attempt at a drone dunk. However, both players fondly remember their magical night in Toronto three years ago.
“Time flies,” LaVine wrote recently on Instagram next to a photo from 2016. “Best Dunk Contest of our generation. Rematch one day, Aaron Gordon?"
The bouncy Orlando Magic forward, whose 2016 showing was arguably the best ever by a runner-up, replied: “All facts. It’s in your city next year.”
LaVine. Gordon. Diallo. Williamson. Two defending champions, two rematches, and the two most viral dunkers of the Twitter Era. In the city where Michael Jordan famously won the 1988 Dunk Contest. In the house that Mike built.
A dream field meets a dream venue. Now that would be a classic.
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