There are few plays which are as electrifying and exciting in sports as a high flying dunk. A slam dunk has the ability to galvanize the entire team, entertain and fire up the crowd, intimidate and demoralize the opposition and even leave those watching at home leaping off their seats. Attacking the rim and throwing one down shows that no defender is going to stop you, and a dunk can change the course of the entire game because they are a play with so much intensity, authority and athleticism. Over the years there have been hundreds of great dunks and dunkers, including a crop of elite dunkers too.
Some of these players put down dunks which show off their remarkable athletic ability, whilst some show off their grace and make dunking look more like an art form than anything else. There are also many of the best dunkers that show no mercy and throw down vicious dunks full of raw power and attitude, and of course there are even some players that manage to combine these three styles. Players have also proven that size is not an issue, as the smaller players to have played in the league have embarrassed defenders and even won the slam dunk contest.
The most important and impressive dunks are not the ones done at All-Star weekend however, they are the ones put down when it matters. Pretty much everyone in the NBA can dunk, but it is the ones in traffic or on a fast break that can alter the course of a game and give fans something to talk about for a few days. Therefore, this list will primarily focus on the best dunkers in the history of the NBA that have proven that they can get it done in games each night and when it matters. This will see the likes of Spud Webb and Nate Robinson left off, who are two excellent undersized dunkers but rarely demonstrated this during games.
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15 15. Tracy McGrady
As T-Mac’s body began to get the better of him he started to attack the basket less often, which means that we often forget what a phenomenal athlete and dunker he was during his Vancouver, Orlando and early Houston days. McGrady’s deceptive sleepy eyes and smooth jumpshot would catch people off guard, as when he attacked the basket is was with venom and he could finish with style too (including passing the ball to himself off the backboard). On a fast break he could dazzle the crowd with a flashy dunk (which he also demonstrated in the dunk contest), but he could also finish in traffic and put many helpless defenders on posters (including a memorable finish over Shawn Bradley). His combination of flashy, athletic and powerful dunks make him one of the all-time great dunkers.
14 David Thompson
Legend has it that during his North Carolina State days, Thompson could grab a quarter off the top of the backboard and leave two dimes and a nickel. Although a slight exaggeration, this story goes to show what an incredible vertical leap David Thompson had - earning him the nickname "The Skywalker" . He would often use his 44-inch vertical leap to his advantage, throwing down monstrous dunks on anyone foolish enough to stand under the hoop. Bill Walton was one of Thompson’s victims, shattering the backboard in the process of putting down a dunk on the Trail Blazer. He also had good ball handling abilities and speed, allowing him to run on the break and finish with style or take players off the dribble before finishing at the rim. Thompson is one of Jordan’s heroes and the player that he chose to elect him into the Hall of Fame.
13 Jason Richardson
Jason Richardson is reported to have a remarkable 46-inch vertical leap, allowing him to soar much higher than most. This resulted in many stunning dunks throughout his career, and he was not hesitant about trying out 360’s, windmills and alley-oops during games. Richardson also has a very distinctive style when it comes to dunking, combining power, flair and athleticism, and he famously only ever dunks off of two feet. He stunned the world with his performance in the 2002 slam dunk contest, but his ability to do these dunks in games make him one of the greatest dunkers and a player that fans loved to watch during his high flying days.
12 Shaquille O’Neal
When Shaq went up for a dunk you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the person tasked with stopping him. Not only would the defender be on a highlight reel, but they would often have a 300 pound sweaty Shaquille O’Neal all over them. During the early stages of his career where you would see him run the floor, Shaq would put down some enormous dunks as he exploded towards the basket, but as he aged he would instead use his massive frame to move people out of the way before throwing one down. Due to his size and strength, there were a few occasions over his career where Shaq would throw down two-handed dunks so heavily that the stanchion collapsed on itself, or even shatter the backboard.
The dunks may have gotten less spectacular as he aged, but in the early stages of his career he put down countless ferocious dunks and plenty that changed games and put fear in his opponents.
11 Gerald Green
When Gerald Green explodes off the floor he seems to just keep on rising and rising, and is certainly looking down at the hoop on a few of his dunks. The spring in his step along with his audacity to attempt certain dunks make him one of the greatest dunkers the game has seen. Many players will refrain from putting down a flashy dunk in a game in case they miss and feel the wrath of their coach, but Green is so confident in his abilities he will put down windmills, reverse dunks and dunks off the backboard in games. Few players possess his leaping ability and guts, and this makes him one of the more entertaining players and one that is likely to get the crowd of their feet at some point during the game.
10 Kobe Bryant
Much like T-Mac, the breathtaking dunks have slowed down during the later stages of Kobe’s career, but it is important not to forget his incredible dunking ability for much of his career. Kobe had the ability to dunk with grace and would leave many speechless after exploding to the hoop either on a fast break or in traffic. In addition to the dunks themselves, it would often be the play leading up to the dunk that would be so impressive, as Kobe could take his man off the dribble with a stunning move before attacking the rim and finishing with style. After a torn rotator cuff (on a dunk), Kobe may finally be done, but we should not forget his extraordinary athletic and dunking ability that he wowed crowds with for many years and which made him such a popular player.
9 LeBron James
If it wasn’t so frowned upon and most likely result in a benching, I think a lot of defenders would simply let LeBron go when he picks up a full head of steam on a fast break. Like a freight train running down court, it is only going to end badly for the defender who will either foul LeBron who has the strength to shrug it off, foul LeBron and potentially cause an injury, or end up on the receiving end of a top 10 play of the week. LeBron has an enormous vertical leap to go along with his strength and speed, making him an elite dunker in this league and one that seems to be looking down at the hoop on some dunks. In addition to attacking the ring with incredible power on the break, he has also proven that he can finish in traffic and on players much taller than him and in the most important games of the season.
Fans have been dying to see LeBron enter the dunk contest as we all know his aerial abilities from high school and the NBA, and one young fan has even challenged him to enter for charity this year.
8 Clyde Drexler
One of the more fitting nicknames the NBA has had, Clyde “The Glide” Drexler would dazzle crowds with his ability to glide towards the basket before finishing with style. Drexler had all kinds of breathtaking dunks in his arsenal, being able to finish with one or two hands in traffic and on the break, making him one of the more entertaining players in the league. Drexler made dunking look like an art form, and his creativity ensured that you never knew what was about to happen as he flew towards the basket and stayed in the air for what seemed like an eternity. Few players seem to have the ability to fly through the air as gracefully as Drexler, and when this is combined with his ability to finish with style it makes him one of the more unique and memorable dunkers in NBA history.
7 Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin has worked tirelessly at his game to become a more complete player, which means that we do not see him attack the basket quite as often as we did earlier in his career. He used to attack the hoop at every opportunity as he was limited offensively, but his extraordinary athleticism and strength make him one of the better dunkers in NBA history. With such power and aggression going to the hoop there are few that could stop Griffin, and playing alongside a great passer in Chris Paul it means that we have been treated to hundreds of jaw dropping dunks and alley-oops from Griffin over the years.
Not many players of his size possess a vertical leap as large as Griffin’s, who can get eye level with the hoop on some efforts, making him one of the more dominant and impressive dunkers in recent times and a fan favourite. Although it is to be admired he has improved his overall game, it is also a shame that his high flying exploits are not quite as common these days.
6 Darryl Dawkins
Another player famous for his thunderous dunks and for shattering backboards, Darryl Dawkins was such a prominent dunker that he began to come up with names for the variety of dunks he would throw down each night. Dawkins was also known as “Chocolate Thunder”, and a few of his dunks were known as “In Your Face Disgrace”, “Earthquaker Shaker”, “Yo Mama”, “Spine Chiller Supreme” and “Slam Bam Thank You Maam”. These poetic names added an extra dimension and some fun to his dunks, but those that he dunked on were certainly not laughing. He would palm the ball in his left hand and bring it with one hand from down by his side, resulting in a hammering dunk. After breaking multiple backboards, the NBA introduced breakaway rims to stop delays in case “Chocolate Thunder” were to tear down another ring with a thunderous dunk.
5 Julius Irving
It was Julius Erving, AKA Dr. J, who helped to popularize dunking back during his ABA days, as he came up with a wide variety of dunks which are still replicated today. Dr J is also famous for his jaw dropping free-throw line dunk, which not too many players have been able to replicate since (despite many trying). His enormous hands enabled him to palm the ball with ease, and this allowed him to move the ball around as he approached the basket, bamboozling defenders before throwing the ball down with authority. He is one of the more exciting players on a fast break to play the game, but he could also rise above defenders in a half court situation for a stunning jam.
He inspired an entire generation to replicate his famous dunks as well as come up with their own, and is therefore responsible for so much entertainment we have witnessed over the years.
4 Michael Jordan
There are not many top NBA lists that don’t contain Michael Jordan, and dunking is certainly no exception. A key part of his game was his extraordinary ability to attack the basket, and his incredible vertical leap and “hang time” was like no other. This enabled him to throw down hundreds of dunks which had people leaping out of their chairs in the arena and back at home, and MJ was another dunker that made it look like an art form as well as a display of amazing athleticism.
Jordan won the dunk contest twice, but it was his in game high flying exploits which were most impressive, hanging in the air and absorbing contact before throwing one down with grace and style. A few of his more memorable dunks include a “rock the cradle” on a fast break, throwing one down over Alonzo Mourning, dunking on the entire Miami team with one hand, and a brilliant fake spin move before rising to finish above a helpless Patrick Ewing in the 1991 playoffs (MJ’s personal favourite). No player could soar quite like “His Airness”, who has possibly the greatest leap we have ever witnessed as well as a wide arsenal of flashy, creative, graceful and monstrous dunks. You can be sure that all NBA fans have proudly hung a Jordan poster in their room demonstrating his phenomenal aerial ability.
3 Shawn Kemp
When Kemp was attacking the basket the wisest thing to do would be to get out of the way, as he threw them down harder than anybody. “Reign Man” as he became known was incredibly athletic and could run the floor well, but it was the aggression that he dunked with that made him one of the all-time great dunkers. After embarrassing a defender after a high flying alley-oop, tomahawk jam or viscous two handed dunk he would often taunt his defender afterwards, adding to their embarrassment.
He formed an excellent duo with Gary Payton, resulting in countless alley-oops and giving the Sonics a hard nosed reputation. An intimidating presence and phenomenal athlete in his prime, Kemp could and would throw down huge dunks on anybody in the league and has lengthy highlight reels demonstrating this.
2 Dominique Wilkins
Like Kemp, Dominique Wilkins became famous for throwing his dunks down hard and over multiple defenders, but was also a 2-time dunk champion. His nickname “The Human Highlight Film” says it all, as he must have one of the longest highlight reels to date as it seemed in every game he would rise up for a monster dunk. This could be a windmill, tomahawk dunk, double pump in traffic, a reverse dunk, huge putback, alley-oop or a facial over some of the biggest and best defenders in the league.
Wilkins’s ferocious dunks throughout his career have left fans stunned, embarrassed opponents and made him one of the most entertaining players to ever play the game. In the blink of an eye Wilkins could change a game with one of his spectacular dunks, and this was often the case for the Hawks during the mid 1980’s when he was at his most lethal.
1 Vince Carter
You won’t see him putting many defenders on posters these days, but earlier in Carter’s career he was a truly astounding dunker. Unlike the other dunkers on this list, Carter could combine sheer power, grace, athleticism, creativity and flair all in one dunk. In the 2000 dunk contest he left the world speechless with a few of his efforts, including putting his entire forearm in the ring, a 360 windmill and a through the legs dunk off a pass from teammate and cousin Tracy McGrady.
More impressive, however, are Carter’s in game dunks. These electrified crowds and left his teammates and even defenders in complete awe. He has dunked on everyone from Dikembe Mutumbo to Alonzo Mourning, and of course leapt over 7-foot-2 Frederic Weis in the 2000 Olympics. On fast breaks we have seen “Vinsanity” come up with all kinds of flashy, creative dunks you would find in a video game, which have left coaches pulling out their hair but simultaneously applauding his incredible ability . Powerful, graceful, stylish and athletic, Carter has provided the league and fans around the world with an enormous amount of entertainment and is the greatest dunker in the history of the NBA.
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