Zach LaVine Brings Back Dunk Contest in Preview of What Lies Ahead

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterFebruary 15, 2015

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The Slam Dunk Contest has long been the marquee event of All-Star Saturday, but it's undoubtedly lost some of its luster over the years.

Thanks to a teenager out of Seattle by the name of Zach LaVine, the dunk contest is now well on its way to being a shining, shimmering, splendid event once again.

The NBA's superstars no longer participate as they did during the heyday of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. The dunks have all been done—by Vince Carter, Dwight Howard, Gerald Green and the like—forcing the new guys to use props and gimmicks, and risk looking silly with outrageous attempts that rarely work out and, in turn, sap the energy and enthusiasm from the audience.

At least, those are criticisms that fans and pundits alike have lobbed at the Dunk Contest in recent years.

All LaVine did was catch those lobs and throw them down with authority on the way to an impressive victory that just might kick this competition up a notch, Emeril Lagasse-style.

LaVine was hardly a household name coming into the evening. Sure, LaVine's prior high-wire acts, particularly one stint in Jamal Crawford's Seattle Pro-Am, have long been the stuff of YouTube lore.

That performance convinced more than a few folks, including those in the NBA from the Pacific Northwest, of LaVine's ability to shine on the Association's slam dunk stage.

But a rookie averaging 21.7 minutes per game for an 11-42 Minnesota Timberwolves squad wasn't about to find his name on any marquees, not even among first-years on his own team. That distinction belongs, instead, to Rookie of the Year favorite Andrew Wiggins, who had a hand in LaVine's triumph.

What LaVine did have in spades, though, was creativity and, more importantly, the swagger and sky-scraping hops to realize what few could've even imagined.

LaVine showed that off from the get-go. His first foray into Slam Dunk lore was an homage to Space Jam, the movie that, as a toddler, inspired him to play basketball. 

The Quad City DJ's were on-hand to perform the movie's theme song as LaVine's introduction, but that wasn't even the most audacious part of the 19-year-old's opening act. He upped the ante by sporting a No. 23 Michael Jordan "Toon Squad" jersey.

More impressively, LaVine more than lived up to that lofty billing on his back, earning a score of 50 from the judges in the process.

LaVine closed out Round 1 with his "simplest" slam of the night: a behind-the-back flush that garnered a perfect 50 of its own, to seal LaVine's spot in the championship.

Once there, even Orlando's Victor Oladipo, a veteran of last year's strange Slam Dunk Contest, was no match for LaVine's assisted antics. First came the left-handed, between-the-legs jam, with Wiggins serving as the tee.

Then came another between-the-legs job, this time with fellow Bruin one-and-done Shabazz Muhammad serving up the dish off of the side of the backboard.

All told, LaVine fell just a single point shy of an immaculate combined score of 200, and he brought the noise level at Barclays Center to an 11 every time.

Not bad for a relative unknown. Neither was the trophy that LaVine took home for his feats of flight. In fact, LaVine now stands as the second-youngest slam dunk champion ever, behind only the 18-year-old Kobe Bryant—who just so happened to be LaVine's childhood idol—in 1998. SI.com's Ben Golliver quotes LaVine:

Indeed, every dunk LaVine put out there looked like it was concocted during a deep sleep, clearly in a good way. With each slam, LaVine managed to raise the stakes just a bit higher, all the while removing the mystery that had once shrouded his name in the minds of many fans, casual and diehard alike.

In doing so, it's possible that LaVine set up the Slam Dunk Contest for a bright future. At his age and with a title to defend, LaVine could find himself back on this stage next year. Chances are, he'll be able to think up another batch of acrobatics with which to wow legendary judges and crowds alike.

More tantalizing, still, is the potential for Wiggins to get involved. Helping his fellow Bounce Brother pull off his stunt may well inspire Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, to try his hand at competitive dunking and, in turn, challenge his teammate's newfound throne.

But the venue of next year's All-Star festivities—the Air Canada Centre in his hometown of Toronto—figures to be the biggest draw for Wiggins. What better way for Wiggins to bring Canada's basketball renaissance, and his place in it, full circle than by showing off his insane athleticism in the same competition through which former Toronto Raptors All-Star Vince Carter inspired the youth of a nation to take up hoops as a pastime, in the very same building that Carter once called home?

In truth, the Dunk Contest never left. Each iteration has yielded no shortage of highlight-reel material for those willing to overlook the wart-like performances and lack of star power in between.  

Perhaps, though, LaVine's standout showing will, at the very least, remind the world of the artistry and sheer awesomeness that the Slam Dunk Contest regularly yields.

Beyond, this could be just the beginning of bigger and better times for the competition that once saw MJ and 'Nique go head-to-head, Vinsanity spark a sports revolution north of the 45th parallel and Blake Griffin take a corporate sponsorship where none had quite gone before.

Maybe not the Age of Aquarius, but a new dawn nonetheless.

 

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.