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NBA AM: Predicting the Dunk Contest Field

Zach LaVine will be in the 2016 Slam Dunk Contest, but who will the NBA choose as his competition?

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On the NBA website’s page for the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest – set to be served as dessert on All-Star Saturday this coming February 13 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto – it simply states that “this year’s participants will be announced soon.” Since so many people are such big fans of this event, however, there’s little reason not to speculate who those participants may be, particularly since some other All-Star press releases have hit the wire over the course of the last week.

With that said, here’s a look at which talented young dunkers likely will (and will not) be taking part.

Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves – So far it looks like LaVine is the only player to have committed to participating in the dunk contest this year, but that makes sense considering he won the thing last year flashing an array of dunks that re-energized the competition and made it as relevant as it’s been in years. LaVine talked with Basketball Insiders about his thoughts and feelings regarding the dunk contest earlier in the season, so it sounds like he’s ready to go. Unfortunately, it looks like some of his most gifted peers are going to sit things out.

Larry Nance, Jr., L.A. Lakers – It’s a great thought, especially considering how many highlight dunks the L.A. Lakers rookie has generated in just his first half season in the league, but the Lakers’ training staff strongly recommended that Nance turn down the opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps as a potential dunk contest champion to deal with a knee issue that has nagged him for a good portion of January. Nance told Basketball Insiders on our podcast that he wanted to compete in the dunk contest, but the Lakers opted to take a cautious approach. The league reached out to the kid and everything to gauge interest, but Nance needs the long weekend to rest up and actually contribute to real basketball, robbing fans of what was sure to have been a really strong showing. There’s always next year.

Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves – Also nope, but not because of any injury. Wiggins just doesn’t seem interested in doing it. When asked by Tas Melas of NBA TV if Wiggins would give the dunk contest a go, he shook his head no about as emphatically as one can. And while he didn’t give any real reason why he’s passing, it doesn’t really matter. Another of the league’s most exciting young dunkers isn’t interested, even though he’s done some incredible acrobatics with a basketball in the past.

Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors – The addition of Ross to the dunk contest field makes a ton of sense not only because he’s one of the most gifted and creative dunkers in the league, but also because he would give the hometown Toronto crowd a local favorite to cheer for in one of the weekend’s marquee events. So far there has been nothing to suggest that the 2013 Slam Dunk champion will return to the contest he owned as a rookie, but his grace and athleticism belong in this competition. There might not be anyone in the league willing to participate in this thing with a better shot to dethrone LaVine.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks – It wasn’t a great showing for Antetokounmpo last winter when he stacked up against LaVine, Victor Oladipo and Mason Plumlee in the 2015 Sprint Slam Dunk Contest, but his chest is much more puffed out than it was a year ago and one has to think he’s learned what kind of showmanship has to go into these contests to have a shot at winning. Chances are good that, if properly prepared, Antetokounmpo would put on a good show. With those hops and long arms, he has to have some dunks in his arsenal that nobody else in the field could pull off. As a true rising star, he would bring a little name recognition to the field as well.

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic – After spending a good chunk of his rookie season injured, Aaron Gordon looks healthy this year and is more than qualified to show off his athleticism on a stage as elite as the one provided him at All-Star Weekend. We already saw a bit of his skill earlier this month when he pulled off a Dominique-esque double-pump reverse in the middle of a game just for the hell of it, and he’s had his fair share of strong showings in high school and college dunk contests too. He’s a charismatic kid with hops for days, and he’d put the fear of God in a rim were he included in this February’s dunk contest. If added, he’d be a legitimate contender to win the whole thing.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks – While there hasn’t been anything in his arsenal of dunks this season to suggest that he’s got the sort of nimble athleticism and effortless elegance in the air that some of these other potential contestants offer, there’s more than enough appeal to offer a spot in the popular contest to the league’s most popular rookie. There always seems to be at least one seven-footer in these competitions, and Porzingis has the charm and creativity to at least come up with something showy if not technically overwhelming. At the very least, he’d bring in viewers, and he’s already going to be in Canada for the Rookie-Sophomore Game. Might as well suit him up for one more major event.

Derrick Williams, New York Knicks – While he might not fit the bill as the sort of ultra-young, ultra-athletic dunker that the league selects for the modern version of this contest, Williams does have dunk contest experience and has publicly expressed his desire to partake in the festivities. To his credit, he has shown off some impressive, high-flying slams this season and absolutely is rejuvenated in New York. He and Porzingis won’t both make it from the same team, but one Knick at least seems feasible. If not Porzingis, it may as well be former No. 2 overall draft pick Williams.

Every year when it comes to time to look at who might be included in the dunk contest, there always are a handful of no-brainers, but the league typically pulls one completely out of left field too. Knowing that, a fair prediction for the field of four dunkers would be LaVine, Gordon, Ross and a relatively surprising fourth guy, which for the sake of nailing down a definitive prediction easily could be Porzingis.

Adding Wiggins and Nance would have been the best outcome, but with those two out of the running plenty of entertainment value could be siphoned from a group that featured the aforementioned four dunkers.

The league is expected to announce the actual contestants any day now. Let’s hope we end up with something as creative as one of these 58 dunks never before performed at an NBA dunk contest:

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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