The game of basketball is one of the most exciting sports to watch and play, which probably helps explain its continued explosion in global popularity. At the highest level of the sport, a premium is placed on players who possess size, strength, speed, and explosiveness, meaning the NBA is widely regarded as producing some of the finest athletes in the world. Even at lower levels of competition, the sport still features frequent scoring and evident skill, producing numerous opportunities for fans to “ooo” and ahhh” over the proceedings.
The combination of athleticism, scoring, and skill aren’t just exciting for fans either: players frequently get caught up in the excitement of their own feats, and push each other to pull off ever-increasingly outlandish displays of physical superiority. While some players like Tim Duncan are noted for their stoic demeanor and fundamentally sound play, others go above and beyond what’s necessary in an attempt to produce the most outrageous highlights possible. This urge to show off most frequently manifests itself during fastbreak dunks, but can get incorporated into almost any type of play, from ankle-breaking crossovers, to no-look passes, to smothering blocks.
Then of course, there’s the play after the play. When things go right, benches erupt, screams are directed at the crowd, menacing glares are delivered to opponents. When things don’t go as planned, the result is almost even more entertaining: coaches shaking their heads, benches giggling, and the would-be highlight-maker hanging his head in shame or grinning sheepishly.
This is a tribute to those players who sometimes let their egos get the better of them, and use the game as their own personal playground to showcase their remarkable abilities. They may sometimes leave basketball purists grumbling about their excesses, but without their acrobatics and histrionics, the league just wouldn’t be the same.
15 Dikembe Mutombo
The only defensive star on this list, “Mount Mutombo” makes the cut thanks to his iconic finger-wag, a sort of non-verbal trash-talking that’s been frequently imitated, but never surpassed. His imposing combination of size, explosiveness, and impeccable timing allowed him to block more shots than anyone in NBA history not named Hakeem Olajuwon, each one followed by a raised index finger waved demonstratively at his latest victim conveying equal parts pity and scorn. It became such a beloved gesture that it basically got grandfathered into the new NBA rules despite efforts to limit taunting (though with the caveat that the wagging must now be directed at the crowd rather than your already-humiliated opponent).
Mutombo was already a force to be feared in the paint, but his theatrics after the play are what separated him from other intimidating figures and keep his legacy alive to this day.
14 Darryl Dawkins
Darryl Dawkins is one of those rare athletes whose legacy transcends his actual play on the court. One of his lasting influences was being one of the first NBA players ever drafted straight out of high school, going 5th overall to the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1975 draft. The other thing for which he is remembered, however, gave rise to his nickname, “Chocolate Thunder:” his propensity for rim-destroying, backboard-breaking monster jams that emphatically put the “slam” in “slam dunk.” His aerial displays of power became so frequent and violent that the league was forced to design breakaway rims and shatter-proof backboards to avoid nightly destruction and delays.
Dawkins also thought so highly of his dunks that he would give them over-the-top names like the “Look Out Below” and of course, the “Chocolate Thunder Flyin’, Glass Flyin’, Robizine Cryin’, Parents Cryin’, Babies Cryin’, Glass Still Flyin’, Rump Roasting, Bun Toasting, Thank You Wham Ma’am I Am’ Jam.” A consummate showman, Dawkins elevated the dunk from athletic feat to art form.
13 Shawn Kemp
Shawn Kemp was in many ways the spiritual descendant of Darryl Dawkins, another powerful athlete who eschewed college basketball in favor of jumping straight to the pros, but never quite living up to his potential once he got there. One of the most ferocious dunkers of all time, Shawn Kemp was a monster around the rim before his infamous weight gain and rumours of countless illegitimate children dogged him in the twilight of his career. Kemp was never just content with putting the ball in the hoop; he wanted to wreck the rim and break the spirit of any defender stupid enough to get in his way. If you were unfortunate enough to find yourself on the receiving end of one of Kemp’s facials, he was always sure to let you know about it, often hanging on the rim, roaring at the crowd, or simply pointing and staring at unfortunate defenders.
12 Manu Ginobili
One of the greatest international players to ever play the game, Ginobili has revolutionized how foreign players are perceived in the NBA with his wild, flashy playmaking and aggressive explosions to the rim. He’s proven that foreign players can be more than just soft, slow shooters and has brought excitement and unpredictability to a San Antonio Spurs team that has often been accused of being boring to watch. Whether it’s a clutch three, behind-the-back pass, or an electrifying dunk, the four-time champion and former Sixth Man of the Year always seems to go for the home run play – sometimes to the chagring of coach Popovich.
No matter the result, any time the crafty lefty touches the ball is sure to end in entertaining fashion with either a SportsCenter Top 10 highlight, or Shaqtin’ A Fool candidate.
11 Allen Iverson
The newly enshrined Hall of Famer needs little introduction for anyone following the game around the turn of the millennium. Iverson was the top pick in the much ballyhooed 1996 Draft class which also included the likes of Ray Allen, Steve Nash, and a certain Kobe Bean Bryant. Though his star faded before some of his fellow draftees, in his prime, Iverson was a legitimate superstar, and there was a time when a debate between Iverson and Kobe would result in heated arguments instead of laughter. “The Answer” knew only one way to play, and that was to get buckets. With vicious crossovers and whirling forays to the hoop, Iverson was constantly embarrassing his often much bigger defenders, which he clearly relished. His uncompromising approach on the court also translated off the court, where he became a lifestyle icon for an entire generation of young ballers who emulated Iverson’s hip-hop stylings and free-spirited fearlessness.
10 Stephon Marbury
A product of Brooklyn’s infamous Coney Island projects, Marbury was expected to carry on the tradition of great New York point guards after starring at Abraham Lincoln High School and Georgia Tech University. His gritty but flashy style of play perfectly reflected the New York City streetball he had been raised playing, and he was chosen just three picks after Allen Iverson in the 1996 Draft. Even as a 19-year-old rookie, Marbury made an immediate impact, averaging nearly 16 points and eight assists per contest.
His NBA career eventually fizzled out, but not before making a couple of All-Star teams and being consistently mentioned as one of the top guards in the league. A big reason for his star power was his propensity for mixing in moves inherited from his streetball origins, a head-spinning mix of crossovers, no-look passes and layups that seemed to defy the laws of physics. Combined with his New York mean streak, Marbury’s flamboyance sometimes got him into trouble with opponents and basketball purists, but this only added to his reputation as one of the greatest entertainers the game has ever known.
9 Pete Maravich
The greatest scorer in the history of college basketball, “Pistol” Pete Maravich followed up his time at LSU with a brief but brilliant career in the NBA thanks to his uncanny ball handling and shotmaking abilities. He was a master at using slights of hand to throw his opponents off balance before pulling up for a silky smooth jumper, or hitting a cutting teammate for an easy layup. In some ways, Maravich was ahead of his time, a man whose ball handling wizardry and bullet passes left spectators in disbelief and paved the way for future big, creative guards like Magic Johnson. Maravich’s free-wheeling style of play may have drawn the ire of more than a few conservative basketball minds, but his love for the game and production on the court were undeniable.
In fact, Maravich loved the game so much that he died playing it, suffering a heart attack while playing pickup basketball at the tragically young age of 40.
8 Jamal Crawford
Seattle’s own Jamal Crawford has become synonymous with two things: breaking ankles and getting buckets. The rangy guard has carved out a role as a reliable scoring sparkplug off the bench, winning a record three Sixth Man of the Year awards. His absurd control of the ball has allowed him to get wherever he wants on the floor, allowing his skinny frame to snake in past and in between defenders to get to his preferred spots. One of his pet moves is a behind the back crossover which he then brings back around to his original hand, a juke that never fails to freeze defenders and electrify crowds. One of the best ball handlers in the game today, Jamal’s love of the game has him putting on a show for fans every night, and he shows no signs of slowing down, even at 36 years of age.
7 Vince Carter
In any conversation about the greatest dunkers of all time, Vince Carter’s name is liable to make several appearances. He single-handedly revived the dormant All-Star Slam Dunk Contest in 2000, with gravity-defying artistry, execution, and showmanship. Even before that, and for many years after, “Air Canada” has left fans and players alike in awe of his aerial capabilities, putting a little extra mustard on every tasty slam he’s served up during his 18 year career.
His posterizing dunk at the 2000 Olympics, where he jumped over 7’2” Frenchman Frédéric Weis might be the greatest in-game dunk of all time. Making windmills and 360 degree dunks seem routine, Carter clearly does not live by the adage “two points is two points,” demonstrating repeatedly his intent to put on a show for fans.
6 Dominique Wilkins
“The Human Highlight Film” was perhaps the only NBA player in the ‘80s whose athleticism could rival Michael Jordan’s. His showdown with Jordan in the 1988 Dunk Contest is the stuff of legends, and though Jordan bested him that year, Wilkins managed to capture two dunking titles of his own during his 15 seasons. Known particularly for his powerful windmill and double-clutch dunks, Wilkins was more than capable of unloading during actual games in addition to his contest exploits. While many of his spectacular double-clutch jams were executed for the practical reason of avoiding a defender’s arms, many of his windmill and reverse slams were more than a little gratuitous. However, his once-in-a-generation athletic gifts made these seemingly audacious plays a breeze to execute, and I think it’s safe to say fans of the game are glad he did.
5 Gilbert Arenas
A colorful figure throughout his NBA career, Arenas was a thrill to watch on the court as one of the best pure scorers in the game. This makes it all the more tragic that his off-the-court gunslinging ended up overshadowing his on-the-court shooting, prematurely ending what could have turned into a Hall of Fame-worthy career. Above all, “Agent Zero” was known for his unwavering confidence, or brazen cockiness, depending on who you ask. Never the biggest or quickest player at his position, Arenas played with a chip on his shoulder that led to a lot of ill advised shots that often still landed.
His combination of shifty ball handling, unlimited shooting range, and that aforementioned confidence made Arenas a terror for opponents to guard one-on-one in the waning moments of a game, and his résumé of game winners proves that he deserves to be ranked among the most clutch performers ever.
4 Ricky Davis
Ricky Davis might be one of the most infuriatingly inconsistent players in recent memory. On the one hand, he was a tremendously gifted athlete, with ideal physical tools and skills. His jaw-dropping leaping ability made him an easy target for lobs, while his above-average vision allowed him to rack up assists in a hurry. On the other hand, Davis was a complete bonehead. Davis was so self-absorbed that he once attempted a shot on his own hoop in a vain, misguided attempt to achieve a triple double; another time, he tried and failed to complete a between-the-legs dunk during an actual regular season game.
In fact, his uncoachable attitude likely played a big role in getting him traded from Cleveland during the 2003-04 season due to concerns about his potentially bad influence on rookie LeBron James’s development. Instead of teaming up with James to form one of the most formidably skilled and athletic wing duos in recorded history, Davis never fully corrected his attitude issue and spent the rest of his relatively short NBA career throwing down alley-oops, chasing stats, and not playing defense (pretty much purely showboating, in other words).
3 Earvin “Magic” Johnson
The “Magic" man stands as one of the greatest and most influential players to ever pick up a basketball. His rivalry with Larry Bird is widely credited with reviving interest in the NBA and ushering in the modern era, with Bird’s hard-nosed, stoic intensity standing in contrast to Johnson’s joyful exuberance. The greatest point guard of all time helmed arguably the most dazzling offense ever created, a well oiled scoring machine that helped the “Showtime” Lakers win five titles during the ‘80s. His height allowed him to see over defenses and create passing angles that were impossible for any other point guard to make. With one of the most accomplished careers, and longest highlight reels of any player, Johnson proved that you could have fun and pump up your fans while still playing winning basketball.
2 Jason Williams
Coming into the league at the same time rapper Eminem was beginning to blow up, Jason “White Chocolate” Williams fit the zeitgeist of the time as a young white man with “trailer trash” origins playing a black man’s game. He entered the NBA having already built a reputation as the most exciting white playmaker since Pete Maravich, a point guard with the creativity to pull off any kind of pass or dribbling maneuver, and more importantly, the hootzpah to pull them off in an actual game. Despite his flare for the dramatic, Williams proved he could use his sorcery to still conjure up winning basketball. He was a founding member of the run-’n-gun Kings of the late ‘90s-early 2000s that produced the most entertaining basketball this side of the Harlem Globetrotters, and even won a championship in 2006 as Dwyane Wade’s starting back court mate for the Heat. Though he tamed some of his wilder tendencies as his career progressed, fans will still remember him as the guy that threw passes with his elbow and turned all-world defenders into statues.
1 JaVale McGee
Ah, JaVale. How could we forget about your Shaqtin’ A Fool Hall of Fame-worthy career? McGee is the ultimate exercise in style over substance, a man who wants so desperately to show off his admittedly incredible physical attributes that he repeatedly forgets (or ignores) the consequences of coming up a little short. But McGee never just comes up “a little short;” the plays he attempts are so ambitious that they result either in spectacular highlights, or irredeemable disasters. Let’s face it, he’s more known for the latter than he is the former. For every emphatic block, there’s a poorly timed goal tend, still performed with equal gusto. For every out-of-nowhere put-back dunk, there are three going-nowhere drives. That’s just the way McGee is, and it’s why he’s become such a fan favorite. Boom or bust, his showboating ways never fail to provide a spectacle.