The Slam Dunk Contest is an enduring highlight of the NBA’s All-Star Game weekend, featuring as it does the values most prized by basketball fans: leaping and creativity.
The dunk is the most celebrated shot in the game. But an ability to soar above the rim and jam the ball through the net are not skills that track neatly with basketball success, which leaves the dunk contest in a sort of netherworld. It looks great, but does it mean anything outside the context of the event?
Where Zach LaVine goes, after air-walking his way to an easy victory in the dunk competition on Saturday, will be watched closely. The Minnesota Timberwolves rookie point guard may not have a game sufficiently well-rounded to become one of the league’s elite. But, at age 19, it is too early to tell.
[ – Timberwolves rookie Zach LaVine, 19, soars to NBA slam dunk title ]
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Dunking does not assure success, though it can hint at it.
LaVine will know that Nate Robinson, a player of middling talent, won the dunk contest three times. He will know that peripheral figures like Harold Miner (twice), Jeremy Evans and Brent Barry won it without ever becoming stars.
He also will know that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant won it.
A spectacular dunk has an emotive value; it will excite fans as well as teammates, and sometimes can seem to change the direction of a game.
However, another staple of the all-star weekend, the three-point-shooting contest (won by Stephen Curry), in which long-range marksmanship is celebrated, probably is slightly more representative of a marketable skill. Draining a three may not energise an arena, but two of them are worth any three dunks, no matter how majestic.
LaVine is an interesting player because we can only guess where he will be, in five years. At the moment, he is a seldom-used back-up to Ricky Rubio, in Minnesota.
That he has great leaping ability is clear, and that is a nice place to start your career.
His dunks revolved around grabbing a bouncing ball at its apex and, while sailing through the air, wrapping the ball around his back or through his legs before dunking. NBA veterans who graded the results, at Madison Square Garden, twice game him perfect scores. Current players went slightly mad.
Something those at the arena may not have realized is this: YouTube video shows LaVine making those same dunks two years ago, while still in high school, and the obvious question is to wonder if the rest of his game also is stuck in 2013.
LaVine did not tear up college basketball in his one season at UCLA, averaging 9.4 points per game and 1.8 assists, a low number for a point guard. That did not scare off the Timberwolves, who made him the 13th pick in the 2014 draft.
He is struggling for playing time as well as consistency, in the NBA. He scored a career-high 28 points against the Los Angeles Lakers back in November, but over his past five games he is averaging three points on 7-for-19 shooting.
His minutes figure to go up; the Wolves last week traded veteran point guard Mo Williams, making LaVine the No 2 point guard, up from No 3.
His supporters suggest he could be a Russell Westbrook-like player – tall for a point guard, not afraid to shoot, supremely athletic.
They will hope his career does not follow the path of the 2012 dunk contest winner, Evans, whose injury-hit career has seen him average 3.7 points in five seasons.
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