UCLA Basketball: Ranking Bruins' Best Dunkers from the Past Decade
Dunkers and basketball players are two different things.
Dunkers dazzle because they launch defiantly from terra firma and undertake intricate tasks airborne that cause land lubbers to envy their great gift of wingless flight.
Basketball players excel at all the fundamental tasks of team basketball and concern themselves rarely with the specialized art of dunking, unless it is called for in the heat of a game.
Coaches, as a hard rule, prefer basketball players. The rare specimen who is both dunker and player is by far the most potent hybrid, and there isn’t a coach alive who would pass one up. Michael Jordan was one and LeBron James is one now, if you’ll forgive the obscure examples.
The following list comprises the best dunker or dunkers on each of UCLA’s last 10 teams. This article doesn't necessarily list basketball players, only dunkers are needed. However, in looking it over I noticed that each of the examples brought far more to the arena than just the art of dunking.
The ranking is not the best of the last 10 years, but rather the internal competition among teammates for the top dunker on each unit.
2004-05 Season: Josh Shipp
Josh Shipp was a gamer. He had good, capable athleticism, though not exceptional, but attacked angles exceptionally well and had an attitude about dunking that made him a target for opponents to suppress.
Shipp visibly relished demoralizing the enemy with aggressive rack runs and took pride in changing the tenor of a game with a Johnny On The Spot slam.
As a teammate, he showed up every night for the squads he played on and executed with confidence what he knew he could do to contribute to victory. Shipp was a big-shot hitter, a remorseless killer and a winner in Westwood with a roster spot on three teams that played into the Final Four.
2005-06: Arron Afflalo and Ryan Hollins
This was Ben Howland’s third team and the second to blend up his recruits with what Steve Lavin had left behind after his 2003 firing.
Lavin at UCLA did not develop players noticeably over the course of a career, but he had recruited batches of super athletes who tended toward soaring wing-attacks on opponents that held serve among the most spectacular in college basketball at the time.
Uncharacteristically, the players Howland inherited were not remarkably explosive or physically elite. That is what makes this season a difficult batch to select from.
Arron Afflalo had been Howland’s “biggest get” at the outset of his program rebuild. With Shipp playing only four games this season because of a protracted rehabilitation after hip surgery, the traditional role of slash-and-burn wing went to Afflalo.
Not a big bouncer, Afflalo was strong with the ball around the rim. He would dunk hard to be sure of points and played with a rugged strength that was difficult to turn back. Even with the power, there was a smooth, stylish flow to his game. Memories of Afflalo’s No. 4 billowing out on the open floor run or as he chopped down dunks on the break remain well intact.
Ryan Hollins gets co-recognition here because he dunked more than anybody on this team. A 7-foot-tall string bean of a center who ran and leaped exceptionally well, Hollins had been a four-year project who finally emerged his senior season after Howland forced two years of discipline in the weight room.
On this the first of three consecutive Final Four teams, Hollins kept defenses spread with the baseline run or screen-and-roll in the half-court making the aggressive and demoralizing alley-oop a perpetual menace.
2006-2008: Russell Westbrook
With the merciless superiority of the alpha wolf, Russell Westbrook snatched the venerated post of best dunker from Josh Shipp and held it without being challenged the next two seasons.
Westbrook used limited minutes his freshman campaign to showcase a rare ability to devastate an enemy from the skies.
In a pace-less, ugly NCAA Tournament game against Indiana, Westbrook booster-packed an aggressive open-floor slam against one of the Hoosiers’ senior guards to ignite UCLA. The Bruins went on a blitz the rest of that game, easily dispatching Indiana, and eventually reached the Final Four.
Westbrook’s sophomore season was a steady campaign of destruction. By the time it ended—again in the Final Four—he was one of the five most feared and fearless players in college basketball and the fourth-overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft.
A fleet runner and explosive jumper with the cruel indifference of a knockout fighter for putting the lights out on an opponent, Westbrook has become one of the most devastating backcourt players in professional basketball.
2008-09: Jrue Holiday
Jrue Holiday signed at UCLA as Rivals.com's No. 2 overall high school player. An end-to-end blazer with special athleticism, Holiday was very much a supercar-type machine with unlimited potential.
Unfortunately for everyone, the timing was bad. Holiday was a natural point guard when UCLA had a senior hero in Darren Collison who not only had played on all three of the previous Final Four teams but was worthy of the starting position. Holiday, as a consequence, was moved to the wing and played limited minutes that first season.
He never found a rhythm and looked very little like the player people had expected to see at UCLA right out of the wrapping. During his sparse stay in Westwood he still managed to make enough cheddar for a pleasant highlight reel.
In spite of only playing 27 minutes a game and averaging 8.5 points to go with 3.7 assists and 3.8 rebounds, Holiday was taken 17th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Draft.
His professional career has borne out of what aficionados always knew about him. His 76ers highlight reel is a galleon of riches.
Holiday’s speed to the rim, quick-fire jumping and long arms have made it possible for him to embarrass a champion’s gallery at the highest level, including Lebron James on this confrontation at the rim.
2009-10: Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson (with a Secret Champ on the Bench)
These two teams could easily split in the dunking competition between Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson.
Honeycutt was the smoother athlete with the mixture of length and leaping by which the greatest dunkers are created. Nelson, as a foil, was a mean, aggressive interior player who dunked to intimidate and demoralize an opponent.
Honeycutt played well for UCLA but left too early for the NBA, spoiling his opportunity. We recently learned he was nearly forced to leave because the money for himself and his mother had run dry and he was in perpetual danger of being caught for NCAA violations that could have caused serious problems for both himself and UCLA’s basketball program.
Honeycutt is playing professionally overseas now, but whether jumping over four men in foreign dunk contests, or in the summers when he shows for the Drew League in Los Angeles, Honey-C does not hesitate to showcase the slashing style, jumping acumen and coordination that got him pegged as a rising star his sophomore season at UCLA.
Nelson was not a smooth, finesse skywalker, but a cruel 6’9’’ belligerent wrecker. When his game-time-kill attitude was infused among his teammates and impelled them forward, he appeared to be an emerging leader on the team.
But something dark inside kept Nelson from focusing his vast energy toward positive ends, and his career at UCLA crashed and burned as spectacularly as any players in the history of the program.
The little-known truth of the matter is that a walk-on practice player was actually the best dunker on the team. A 5’7’’ walk-on named Spencer Soo went from Wooden center pick-up runs to a high-energy player charged with making things hard for the Bruins' elite backcourt players in practice.
I used to battle with Soo in pick-up games at the Wooden Center, and if I had known his ability was good enough to get a uniform and chair on the bench for every game I might have considered making a run myself. But I couldn’t jump like Soo, and he became a kind of cultish hero to those who knew who the little guy at the end of the bench happened to be.
Someone put together a video of Soo hammering 360-slams and several other variations of flush—more than one filmed inside the mystical confines of the Wooden Center where it all began.
2011-2013: Norman Powell
Norman Powell happens to be a spring-loaded human being, and if it weren’t for Zach Lavine, he would have held on to the dunking title the next year, too. But there is nothing to be done about LaVine and leaping, it would be like begrudging a cheetah for running or a bird for flying.
Powell is a great bouncer, it's as simple as that. He is another in a line of wings who electrifies an arena by attacking giants head on in the paint.
Here he flattens out a few Oregon Ducks in a way reminiscent of how Russell Westbrook once knocked out Dominic Artis.
Here he pounds one out on Arizona’s Jordin Mayes.
Here is Powell catching an alley-oop.
2013-14: Zach LaVine
Zach LaVine spent a good freshman year at UCLA and next year will have an NBA contract even though it’s unlikely he’ll be a rotation player in the league for several seasons.
He is likely a future NBA Slam Dunk champion, whatever else he might do to round out his attack.
There is no end to the superlatives one could use to describe LaVine's leaping ability. For a fleeting moment on the way up he is almost a heron taking flight. It is an effortless, but fast and soaring, one-legged explosion.
At 6’5’’ with a wingspan over seven feet, LaVine could grab and hold the top of the backboard if he wanted to.
The video linked to here is a pre-draft highlight reel—just some basic video of open floor workouts that reveal next to nothing except for that freakish leaping talent. Watch until the end, because the last leap—which is slowed down just slightly by the editor—lets you feel that sense of flight and shows a player whose head is even, or is it just above, the level of the rim itself.
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