Grading the 2024 NBA Slam Dunk Contest

Grading the 2024 NBA Slam Dunk Contest

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Readers, we love a good Slam Dunk Contest here at CelticsBlog. At its best, the contest is one of the coolest events in sports, celebrating one of the inherently coolest plays in athletic competition. Everybody loves a good dunk — in theory, cramming a bunch of them into a short span of time is just a no-brainer kind of good time.

Well, the luster has worn off of the contest in recent seasons. Since Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon famously went head-to-head in 2016 in one of the greatest contests in NBA history, the event has faced an accelerated lack of interest. The stars aren’t showing up, and the dunks haven’t felt as exciting; it’s felt as though something is missing. On the eve of tonight’s contest, the Wikipedia page for “Slam Dunk Contest” didn’t even mention a contest after LaVine’s second win.

This year, the Celtics’ own Jaylen Brown has provided a much-needed spark to the system. He’s the first All-Star to compete in the event since Victor Oladipo in 2018, lending a bit of legitimacy that it feels like the contest has been lacking. Though Brown ultimately finished in second place, in honor of the star forward’s participation in the contest, we’ve put together our own, (mostly) unbiased grades for each dunk of tonight’s contest.

First Round

Jaime Jaquez Jr., Dunk #1:

The first of two dunks in this competition to feature Shaquille O’Neal, Jaquez kicked off this contest with a one-handed windmill, snatching the ball from Shaq, who held it behind his head (bowing it quite a bit, as I always feel the need to note). There was quite a bit of setup time for this one, but Jaquez did complete it on the first try. Succeeding on the first attempt isn’t meant to be a requirement of the contest (they get 1 minute 30 seconds for a reason, and even Michael Jordan missed the first attempt from the free throw line) but seemed to matter to these judges tonight, so Jaquez earned himself some credit for knocking it down in one.

In my opinion, this is a solid, if unspectacular dunk. Jaquez did clear Shaq, and didn’t appear to push off of Shaq’s shoulder (a cardinal sin of the “dunking over a guy” genre) so much as he did a bit of a stiff-arm to keep himself up. It’s fine enough for a first dunk, he introduced himself to the competition pretty well.

My grade: 46

Judges’ grade: 47.4

Jacob Toppin, Dunk #1:

The brother of 2022 champion Obi Toppin really didn’t want us to forget about their familial relation. Wearing the sneakers his brother wore during his title-winning performance, Toppin completed his first dunk in one attempt, pretty cleanly, over Obi. The two-handed reverse over the head was nice, but lacked showmanship — it’s a dunk you can’t complain about, which set him up solidly in the first round.

My grade: 47

Judges’ grade: 47.4

2024 NBA All-Star - State Farm All-Star Saturday Night

Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Jaylen Brown, Dunk #1:

Jaylen went for a Dominque Wilkins homage with this one, pulling out a two-handed windmill after receiving the ball from a guy wearing a ‘Nique jersey (who wasn’t ‘Nique). It was an odd setup, and the live broadcast managed to miss his dunk entirely. Not sure what happened there.

As for the dunk itself, I wouldn’t call it splashy, but it was effective. A bit of a trend for Jaylen tonight was that he broke out a couple of dunks that looked like something he would throw down in an actual game. Technically solid, and thrown down hard. That’s a nice thought, and the dunk itself was executed well on a technical level, but it lacked the “wow” factor you expect from a dunk contest. The broadcast’s fumble may have hurt this one, but overall, it felt more “good” than “great.”

My grade: 47

Judges’ grade: 48.8

Mac McClung, Dunk #1:

This was the most baffling judges’ response of the night. I’m not entirely clear why these dunkers get a time limit for attempts if they’re going to be punished for not converting on their first try. Obviously, everyone gets a little more excited if the first attempt is a winner — there’s no replicating the feeling that creates. But you still have to leave room for audacity, don’t you?

This was an audacious dunk! McClung promised he was bringing something to this contest that we’ve never seen before — I would say this one qualified. It was a two-hand, behind-the-head finish off of an over-the-head handoff, but with the added caveat that the grabbed the ball, let it go, and then regained control for the finish. This dunk required an impressive amount of dexterity on top of the already remarkable amount of athleticism; if anything, it may have been too subtle to really win over the judges and crowd in the moment.

This was the only 50/50 I would have handed out tonight. It was a genuinely great dunk! Guest judge Darnell Hillman gave this a 46 — what??

My grade: 50

Judges’ grade: 48

Jaime Jaquez, Dunk #2:

Jaquez had a hat on this time, and pulled off a pretty nice 360-degree two-hander off a bounce pass to himself. This one was similar to a couple of Brown’s, in that it was a little more technical and a little less show-y, and I think that similarly hurt it a little bit. I would not say I was incredibly blown away — a dunk like this needs to be finished a little bit harder. But it was acceptable. I don’t think this contest brought any truly bad dunks to the table.

The commentators made multiple mentions of Jaquez’s hair amplifying the dunks tonight, and I’m going to be honest with you… I agree. The hair’s pretty glorious, especially in slow motion. This was decent enough work for Jaquez, and if he wanted to participate again, I wouldn’t complain. No haircuts, though.

My grade: 46

Judges’ grade: 46.8

Jacob Toppin, Dunk #2:

This is a very technically impressive dunk, and it does feel like Toppin took a steep hit for not finishing it on his first attempt. Toppin went for a 360, between-the-legs attempt, bringing the ball up with his left hand to connect for the two-handed finish. It looks very nice in slow-motion.

Toppin seemed frustrated with the judges’ response to this, and I get that. But the question I can’t escape: will anybody ever think about this dunk again? There was a lack on a “it factor” to it that I can’t shake. Perhaps there wasn’t quite enough showmanship here.

My grade: 48

Judges’ grade: 47.2

Mac McClung, Dunk #2

McClung jumped Brown in the dunking order here, for some reason, and arrived with an exceptionally solid — if not altogether game-changing — dunk. He played to the score, in other words, busting out something relatively safe in order to ensure he advanced to the final round.

Safe, it was, but impressive nonetheless. McClung brought the ball behind his head, before bringing it back down to waist-level and spinning 180-degrees for the behind-the-head finish. McClung hit this dunk on the first try, and he did so with gusto. In an ideal world, this would be the baseline level of quality we could expect from dunk contest competitors.

However, I certainly feel this was the worst instance of the judges overreacting to whether or not the competitor finished his first attempt. You can’t tell me this was more impressive than his first dunk, or for that matter, a nearly perfect dunk on its own rights.

My grade: 48

Judges’ grade: 49.4

2024 NBA All Star - AT&T Slam Dunk Contest

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Jaylen Brown, Dunk #2:

Jaylen had to bring out his fellow Jay at some point, and sure enough, he brought Jayson out onto the floor for his second attempt of the first round. Unfortunately, it was to little effect — this was the worst dunk of the night.

Tatum set up on the restricted area, with streamer Kai Cenat seated in a chair, recording on a phone. From there, Tatum tossed up a lob to Brown. The duo didn’t connect on their first attempt — that looked to be Jayson’s fault — but succeeded on their second. Unfortunately, the result wasn’t altogether impressive. Brown flubbed an attempt at a tribute to Dee Brown’s no-look dunk from 1991, and the final product looked like a simple one-hander without much flair. This reminded me of the infamous Blake Griffin dunk over the Kia. Fortunately for Brown, the judges enjoyed it a moderate amount more than I did.

My grade: 45

Judges’ grade: 47.6

Final Round

Jaylen Brown, Dunk #1:

At the start of the final round, Brown promised the Indianapolis crowd a big finish. He began his showdown with McClung by donning the Brewster Academy jersey of Terrence Clarke, a Dorchester, Massachusetts native and NBA prospect who tragically died in a car crash in 2021, just three months before he likely would have been drafted into the NBA. It was a touching tribute to a young man who had a close relationship with Brown and the Celtics, and who passed far before his time. Clarke was just 19 years old.

Brown missed his first attempt at this dunk, and he seemed to be the first participant to express some consternation with the newfangled LED floor the NBA deployed for All-Star Weekend. The second attempt was a good one, though, with Brown pulling off a 360-degree spin before finishing a windmill with one hand. This was a rock-solid dunk; it looked good in slow motion, and resonated with audience for its tribute to Clarke. I would argue Brown should have deployed this to close out the first round, rather than leading off the finals with it.

My grade: 48

Judges’ grade: 48.6

Mac McClung, Dunk #1:

McClung deployed not one, but two human props for this one, stacking one person on another’s shoulders as an obstacle. I feel personally obligated to note that both of these individuals were hunkered down quite a bit, diminishing the image that “he dunked over two people” might suggest. However, McClung finished this dunk on his second attempt, and there’s no denying that he got absolutely massive air here. The dunk itself may have looked too easy — just a simple, one-handed windmill — but McClung flew. This was a very good final round dunk.

My grade: 49

Judges’ grade: 48.6

Jaylen Brown, Dunk #2:

Brown amplified the showmanship for his final dunk of the night, and I’m not about to sit here and pretend that I wasn’t incredibly amused. Donning a Michael Jackson-style bejeweled glove on his left-hand — a clear nod to the “no left hand” criticisms that have dogged him in recent seasons — Brown trotted out his erstwhile NBA Bubble frenemy Donovan Mitchell for the handoff. This was a very self-aware setup from Brown; I found it quite funny.

It’s a pretty good dunk, too! He finished it on his first try, and he did so cleanly. The “left hand” narrative was a solid one. A dunk like this might have been better deployed as his first dunk in the finals, with something more jaw-dropping as a finale. That’s the big rub on Brown’s performance in this contest though: it didn’t feel like anything thing he threw down was best-in-show type stuff.

My grade: 47

Judges’ grade: 49.2

Mac McClung, Dunk #2:

Our second Shaq appearance rears its head — we may need to implement a rule outlawing the use of Shaq as a human prop from here on out. Side note: how did nobody try to dunk over Victor Wembanyama tonight? Was he just not willing to cooperate?

McClung trotted out Shaq, and added the (admittedly very good) bit of clothing him in an extra-extra-extra large McClung high school basketball jersey. O’Neal held the ball behind his head, head bowed slightly (but not all that much), and McClung fully cleared him, grabbing the ball with two hands and finishing behind his head as he flew past the basket. This was not a 50 for me, but it was for the judges. For my money, though, this was the second-best dunk of the night.

My grade: 49

Judges’ grade: 50

So, Mac McClung ultimately wins the night, and though I found the judges’ grading confusing in his instance, the final result is hard to disagree with. Brown deserves kudos for bringing some name value to an event that has severely lacked it in recent years, and I would not call his performance disappointing (though the Kai Cenat dunk could have been scrapped). It felt as though both finalists had something more to offer though, and awarding McClung a unanimous 49 on his final dunk would have resulted in a dunk-off between the two that might have given us the exclamation point we were waiting for.

For what we got, though, this was a perfectly cromulent contest. There were no completely disastrous dunks; everything we saw was at least credible. On its own, the 2024 NBA Dunk Contest might not rank among the event’s most memorable contests, but we can hope that it might lead to better things to come. Mac McClung has cemented himself as dunk contest royalty, and the hope is that Jaylen Brown might spark a new wave of high-profile NBA players stepping in to compete. That’s a good enough start, and an entertaining enough spectacle for the night.

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