Nothing gets the crowd on its feet like a breathtaking dunk, and this can fire up the team whilst intimidating the opposition. Dunks are the ultimate highlight play, and throughout history there have been many players who have turned dunking into an art form. Some players throw down thunderous dunks that are all about power, whilst some opt for finesse. There are then those remarkable athletes who have combined both to extraordinary effect. Today, we are looking at the best in-game dunkers throughout NBA history who throw these dunks down when it matters, and with defenders foolishly attempting to stop them.
10. Blake Griffin
These days you do not see Blake Griffin attack the basket with quite the same vigor he did earlier in his career, and this is because he has worked hard to be a more complete player. Although this is to be admired, it has also resulted in not quite as many eye-popping dunks. Griffin is extraordinarily athletic and incredibly strong, and this combination results in some incredible in-game dunks that are both powerful and full of finesse. Due to his size, he can also soar higher than most and even appears to be eye level with the rim on some of his dunks. On top of this, seeing as he plays with one of the best passers in the game, Chris Paul, this allows for many crowd pleasing alley-oops which have been a key part in making the Clippers a successful team and one that is also fun to watch.
9. Kobe Bryant
It has been hard to watch Kobe Bryant battle against his body in the last few years, making it difficult to remember what a remarkable athlete he was. Earlier in his career (mainly during his #8 days), he stunned crowds with some incredible dunks. He combined sheer power along with creativity, and often these dunks would be in traffic and come from him taking his man off the dribble with an equally impressive move. Kobe has dunked on many of the biggest names and players in the league over the course of his career (including 7’6″ Yao Ming), and due to his astonishing resume (which includes five titles, two Finals MVP and League MVP) many forget that Kobe is also the 1997 dunk contest champion. He may not spend much time above the rim anymore, but his dunking exploits should not be forgotten.
8. Shaquille O’Neal
Some of our younger readers may scoff, but in the earlier stages of his career and in his prime Shaq was a complete monster when going up for dunks. He frequently threw down enormous dunks on his 7’0″ opponents, plus any other player who came to help. At 7’0″ and around 300 pounds, there was little you could do to stop Shaq if he caught the ball deep enough, but equally he was capable of leading the fast break and hammering down a huge uncontested jam during his Orlando days (this is hard to remember now). Due to his weight and the power he dunked with, Shaq broke a few backboards and regularly caused the entire stanchion to wobble after a show-stopping dunk. Injuries and age soon caught up with him, but there was a time when Shaq was freakishly athletic and attacked the ring at every opportunity.
7. Clyde Drexler
When Clyde Drexler soared for a dunk, everybody held their breath as he would glide through the air for what seemed like an eternity. There is a lot of talk about “hang time” where certain players seem to stay in the air for much longer than others, and Drexler is certainly a player that had this. Aptly nicknamed “Clyde the Glide,” it is not just the graceful way he flew through the air that lands him on this, however. Drexler could also throw down with the best of them, with all kinds of dunks in his arsenal, whether they were with one or two hands, double pumps, windmills, tomahawks, 360s and dozens more. He could lead a fast break and attack an open basket for a highlight dunk, but Drexler was also more than capable of finishing in traffic over multiple defenders.
6. Darryl Dawkins
Twice in 1979, Darryl Dawkins brought a game to a literal standstill after shattering the backboard with his dunks. Nicknamed “Chocolate Thunder,” Dawkins hammered his dunks home with extreme power, but also had plenty of grace and creativity. By twice shattering the backboard during a game, the NBA were forced to introduce breakaway rims to stop delays in case Dawkins again shattered the backboard. In addition to this, Dawkins also came up with brilliant names for his breathtaking dunks, and many of these are still replicated to this day. A few examples of these are “Earthquake Shaker,” “Spine Chiller Supreme,” “In Your Face” and, of course, “Slam Bam Thank You Maam.” Many of these he amazed the crowd with out on the fast break, but there are also many defenders who will have not so fond memories of attempting to stop Dawkins at the basket.
5. Shawn Kemp
Nobody threw down dunks harder than Shawn Kemp, who embarrassed any defender who foolishly stood between him and the basket when he had a full head of steam. Sadly, Shawn Kemp is now best remembered for his off-court problems and failed comeback attempts, which is a shame because in his (short-lived) prime he was one of the most entertaining players in the league, especially due to his partnership with Gary Payton. The two combined for many fantastic alley-oops, much like Paul and Griffin, but Kemp was also more than capable of running the floor and finishing with thunderous dunks that were full of pure aggression, anger and passion.
4. Julius Erving
Best known as “Dr. J,” it is thanks to Julius Erving that dunking has become such a huge part of the game. In addition to his astonishing vertical leap, Dr. J also used his enormous hands to palm the ball, which allowed him to move the ball around with one hand in the air before throwing down a ferocious dunk. Whether it was on a fast break or other multiple defenders, Dr. J was one of the greatest in-game dunkers who certainly inspired every entry on this list. His importance is evident through so many attempting to replicate his eye-popping free-throw line dunk (which has not been done justice yet), but he also inspired all players after him to get creative and to come up with their own unique dunks. It all began with Erving, and not too many have soared to greater heights than him.
3. Michael Jordan
As if being the greatest player to grace the hardwood wasn’t enough, Michael Jordan is also one of the all-time great dunkers both in-game and in dunk contests. His breathtaking athleticism and vertical leap allowed him to soar much like Drexler, and his upper body strength enabled him to take a hit and still finish strong. He dunked on many of the NBA’s most elite defenders (in a notoriously physical era), but out on a fast break, nobody finished better than Jordan. He knew how to electrify crowds with windmills, tomahawks, double pumps and all kinds of other breathtaking dunks which still remain as posters in many NBA fans’ bedrooms. Many of the NBA’s most iconic moments have been when “His Airness” attacked the basket, and he truly made dunking an artform with his mid-air exploits. This is all just a small part of his incredible legacy.
2. Dominique Wilkins
Nicknamed “The Human Highlight Film,” Dominique Wilkins has thrown down a large percentage of the NBA’s most breathtaking dunks. He threw down dunks with the same power as Kemp, but he also had the creativity of Drexler and did not shy away from attacking the basket and rising up above multiple defenders. At 6’8″, this saw him often looking down on the ring and there were not many who could (or would dare) rise and challenge him. This saw Wilkins embarrass many defenders over the course of his career, and he also twice won the dunk contest. He had a wide range of dunks in his arsenal and would try these out during games, with some of his most famous dunks being windmills and tomahawks. For most players dunking is a highlight play, but for Wilkins it was a key aspect of his game as he was practically unstoppable when attacking the basket.
1. Vince Carter
Watching Vince Carter playing limited minutes and primarily hitting threes with his silky jumpshot these days makes it difficult to remember what an astounding dunker he was for a large part of his career. Tall and with a breathtaking vertical leap, Carter could soar like few others, and this time in the air enabled him to carry out all kinds of extraordinary dunks. What separates him from the pack was his ability to combine grace, athleticism, aggression, creativity, showmanship and flair all in just one dunk. Although he made the dunk contest his own in 2000, this list primarily focuses on his in-game dunks which were just as impressive and left many defenders regretting their decision to stand between him and the basket. The most famous example of this occurred in the 2000 Olympics, where he jumped over 7’2″ Frederick Weis for a legendary dunk.