2021 NBA dunk contest historically low on star power

Knicks big Obi Toppin and Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
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Obi Toppin – a former college superstar who now plays for the New York Knicks – is the biggest name in the dunk contest.

He also isn’t even the best rookie on his own team.

Toppin headlines a dunk-contest field – also comprised of Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons and Pacers guard Cassius Stanley – woefully short on star power.

Simons is a backup in Portland. Toppin (second-fiddle to rookie teammate, Immanuel Quickley, who didn’t even make Rising Stars) is on the fringe of New York’s rotation. Stanley is well outside Indiana’s.

In fact, Stanley’s 2.9 minutes per game would be the fewest over a full season for any NBA player* who competed in an All-Star Weekend contest.

*Rimas Kurtinaitis (1989) and Craig Hodges (1993) participated in 3-point contests while outside the league.

Toppin (12.7 minutes per game) and Simons (17.0 minutes per game) aren’t that far ahead, either.

The average entrant in the 2021 dunk contest is playing just 10.8 minutes per game. That’s – by far – the lowest for any All-Star Weekend contest:

*winner

Unsurprisingly, all the All-Star contests with the lowest minute-per-game averages among participants were dunk contests. That’s the only event players (besides those in Rising Stars) are allowed to decline an invite to, per the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Every 3-point contest, skills challenge and HORSE competition has included at least one All-Star.

The coronavirus pandemic obviously created an additional obstacle this year. The NBA has never had so few entrants (three) in a dunk contest. There have been four the last several years.

Pelicans star Zion Williamson, Timberwolves wing Anthony Edwards, Celtics wing Jaylen Brown, Hornets forward Miles Bridges and Lakers guard Alex Caruso reportedly declined dunk-contest invitations. Surely, the league would have preferred any number of bigger stars to Toppin, Simons and Stanley.

Stanley especially stands out for his lack of pedigree. He’s hardly the first unproven rookie in the dunk contest. But he was just the No. 54 pick in last year’s draft. Only four lower-drafted rookies have ever participated in an All-Star contest:

  • Spud Webb in 1986 dunk contest (No. 87 pick)
  • Darvin Ham in 1997 dunk contest (undrafted)
  • Jamario Moon in 2008 dunk contest (undrafted)
  • Derrick Jones Jr. in 2017 dunk contest (undrafted)

This doesn’t mean it will be a bad dunk contest. Sometimes, great dunkers lack other skills necessary to succeed in NBA games. Stanley’s athleticism shined at Duke, Toppin’s at Dayton. Simons has shown flashes.

Stanley, Toppin or Simons could emerge into the basketball zeitgeist with a thrilling performance Sunday. Webb made a name for himself by winning the 1986 dunk contest.

But there’s something to watching recognizable names. Even if a less-heralded player wins, stars attract attention and establish a baseline. Webb got so much adulation in 1986 by out-dunking Hawks teammate/defending dunk-contest champion/future Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins.

This dunk contest doesn’t carry that type of potential.

Good dunk contests are built on big stars, electric environments and great dunks. This year, there are no stars and no fans. If this event proves enjoyable, it will be based solely on the quality of dunks.

That’s an uphill battle.