- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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This is a dunk contest that, on paper, needed LeBron James. It needed a face, a buzz.
But LeBron is out, still not 100 percent after his sprained ankle, and anyway the dunk contest isn't played on paper.
That's why, when we take a fresh look at the four remaining contestants -- three of whom are nearly faceless, nearly anonymous -- we see a lot to like. We see serious sleeper potential, starting with two 2004 first-round draft picks who may be unknown but who have a household name: Smith. Common name, uncommon hops.
Now that King James says he can't go, here the four who would be Dunk King:
Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks
If someone in this contest is primed to create buzz, it's this kid. Jumps all over the gym. Had 10 blocks one game in December, from the guard position. Almost makes Hawks games worth watching.
It's elevation first and last with him. He specializes in a left-handed, long-armed, women-and-children-scurrying-for-cover tomahawk thing that looks like it ought to be silhouetted on a downtown high-rise wall somewhere. His hops seem limitless, like he's always on an upward trajectory, bound not so much by gravity as his will to throw down. They're giggle-hops; the ones that make you laugh and smile just thinking about the through-line between Dr. J's past and Josh Smith's future.
Throw in the fact that he has 'Nique -- two-time winner Dominique Wilkins -- whispering in his ear, and you have the post-LBJ favorite to win the competition.
J.R. Smith, New Orleans Hornets
He's the other outrageously athletic 19-year-old straight-outta-high-school rookie named Smith who plays for a southern NBA team just hoping to break 20 wins. (This is the one with the shooting range to match his vertical lift.)
J.R. might not get quite as high as Josh does, but he does more when he's up there. When they went heads-up in the dunk competition at the 2004 McDonald's All-America All-Star Game, the difference between J.R. and Josh was creativity and complexity in flight.
Don't get me wrong, Josh has moves (his knees-to-rim dip and dunk is a quick, explosive thing), but J.R. has a little more hang. He had a dunk in the McDonald's comp where he kissed the ball on the left side of the backboard and came around to dunk it on the right. He's got that thing, whatever it is, that allows him to innovate in the air, to linger just a half-beat longer than seems possible.
Watch his lower body, too. With his legs, sometimes tucked and sometimes splayed, J.R. echoes Jordan more than anyone else I've ever seen. If he doesn't try to do too much, and end up missing, he's in the finals against Josh.
Chris Andersen, New Orleans Hornets
Chris got jobbed last year. He was low-balled on a sweet two-handed windmill, and shorted on a head-to-the-rim reverse. He didn't even make the finals, and Freddie Jones, who played it pretty straight and would up winning the whole thing, did.
So there's a chance Chris comes in to this throwdown like a power-forward scorned. There's a chance he's been working up clever dunks in a remote location, somewhere, like Rocky doing rope pull-ups. If that's the case, if he comes in angry and looking to take names, he's got a shot at a surprise berth in the finals, I'd say. He might need someone else to blow a dunk to get there, but he's got hops and a shot to make noise.
Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix Suns
Thunder. Rolling thunder, coming in from on high. He's the perfect in-game dunker for the Suns. He punctuates everything they do and makes it not just quick, but powerful.
But historically, the contest rewards innovation more than pure power, and unless he decides to go Chocolate Thunder on us, and roll Bill Robinzine out to catch some glass in his grill, and shatter a backboard or two, he's a good bet to be sitting courtside with a handheld video camera when the title is decided.
So if you're not sure who to put your money on, think Smith. Josh, that is.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.
Now that LeBron says he's out of the dunk contest, look for Josh and J.R. Smith to show their stuff.