Over the years we've seen many superstars participate in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. The '80s saw Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan capture the dunk crown. In the 1990s it was Kobe Bryant, and in 2000 Vince Carter won. Most recently Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin were high-profile players to win the event. But who among this year's participants has the chance to ascend to superstardom?
In the field we have six contestants, each of whom has a chance of leaving a lasting legacy, both in the contest and the NBA at large. There are youngsters with high upside like Ben McLemore, Harrison Barnes and defending champ Terrence Ross. Point guards John Wall and Damian Lillard were both in the event, and each of them will also be making his first All-Star Game appearance. Then, of course, there's Paul George, who's established himself as one of the league's premier two-way players.
With such a promising field, picking who has the highest ceiling is a difficult task. To help, a few things will be considered. Since this is about ceiling, age and experience are certainly factors. Yet just because you're young, it doesn't mean you'll tap into all of your potential. For that reason, players who are more established have a greater probability of maximizing their skills.
Inevitably, whoever meshes the two best—youth and present abilities—is likely to have the highest ceiling and the best chance of reaching it. With that in mind, let's get to to the rankings.
Just based on pure physical ability, you can't go wrong with Ben McLemore. The rookie is immensely talented.
If there were any questions about McLemore's athleticism, he answered them with his performance in the dunk contest. The youngster has mad hops, which he showed off when jumping over Shaquille O'Neal. Even when he's in a chair a throne, jumping over O'Neal is no easy task.
Beyond his crazy spring, McLemore's also the youngest player in the field. Having just turned 21, he has plenty of time to realize his potential.
Yet he's also the rawest player in the field. In other words, he has the most work to do as far as becoming a superstar is concerned.
Coming into the league, McLemore was known for his sweet shooting stroke. He's certainly shown that in flashes this season. However, he's also had plenty of off nights. The rookie is only shooting 36.6 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from three-point range. He's also only averaging 7.6 points per game and 11.7 per 36 minutes, which are both the lowest of all participants.
In other years, since the dunk contest has seen a bit of a downturn in big-name participants recently, McLemore would be much higher on the list. The guy has tons of potential. Yet so does everyone else on this list. That works against the Sacramento Kings rookie.
Since he signed on to play college ball at the University of North Carolina, there's been tremendous hype surrounding Harrison Barnes. In a lot of ways, deservedly so. Yet the small forward has yet to really put it all together and capitalize on his crazy abilities.
To a large degree, his play has stagnated in his second season in the NBA. After averaging 9.2 points as a rookie, Barnes' scoring average has only increased to 10.4, this despite his playing an additional four minutes per game. To put it in better perspective, the 21-year-old averaged 13.1 points per 36 minutes in 2012-13 and is putting up 12.8 per 36 in 2013-14.
He's also seen decreases in player efficiency rating (11.0; 10.5), field-goal percentage (.439; .416), free-throw rate (.303; .260) and rebounds per 36 minutes (5.8; 5.1).
This isn't to say Barnes hasn't improved because he has in some areas, particularly on defense. According to 82games.com, he held opposing small forwards to a PER of 13.2 as a rookie. This season, they're only posting a PER of 11.4. He's also progressed in his win shares per 48 minutes (.065; .081), so it's not like he's taken a step backward. But he hasn't really made a jump forward either.
Speaking of jumping, Barnes showed off some of that ability during the dunk contest. Perhaps his best highlight of the night was a whirlwind two-hand slam. Yet, to be honest, his slams in the contest pale in comparison to the work he put in on Nikola Pekovic. As Kenny Smith pointed out in the broadcast, Barnes is more power than finesse. That makes his style more suitable for games than dunk contests.
One could easily argue that Barnes has a higher ceiling than others ahead of him, most notably Terrence Ross. However, he's ranked lower because he may not have as good a shot of reaching it. He's always been extremely promising; now he has to start turning some of that promise into results.
Terrence Ross has made considerable improvements in his second season. He's progressed on both offense and defense, and since he just turned 23, it's not like this is the best he'll ever get.
Ross went from averaging 6.4 points as a rookie to 10.2 as a sophomore. A lot of that can be attributed to a much better three-point shot, as the guard is hitting 39.9 percent of his threes, compared to only 33.2 percent a year ago.
Of course, there's also a dunking component to Ross' game, which he showed off in winning the dunk contest in 2013. His performance this year wasn't as spectacular, but he still showed off his abilities. His most memorable dunk of the night came via an assist from Drake where Ross grabbed the ball from the rapper's hand, then brought the ball through his legs for a one-hand slam.
The second-year player has also become more of a two-way threat. He decreased his defensive rating from 109 to 105. His team, the Toronto Raptors, is also a much better defensive team when he's on the floor. According to NBA.com, Toronto gives up 102.3 points per 100 possession with him on the bench and 99.4 with him in the game.
Ross may not have the sheer talent or upside of Ben McLemore or Harrison Barnes. But he's way more polished than McLemore, and he's made much bigger strides in his second year than Barnes has in his. For that reason, he's currently trending as the most likely of the three to put it all together.
There's a pretty big degree of separation between the first three and next three on the list. McLemore, Barnes and Ross are obviously promising players. Yet they're more about upside than current skills. The next group of players—Paul George, Damian Lillard and John Wall—are already established stars and still young in their own right.
Leading off the group is Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers. The point guard is only in his second season, but he's taken the league by storm, winning Rookie of the Year last season and making the Western Conference All-Star team this year.
The 23-year-old is putting up cool averages of 20.7 points, 5.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds. He's also nailing a scorching 40.4 percent of his three-point shots, and he's nearly doubled his win shares per 48 minutes (.088; .158) from Year 1 to Year 2.
Based simply on current skill set and current production, one could make the argument that Lillard should be higher. After all, he's in the three-point shootout, dunk contest and skills competition. It doesn't get much more well-rounded than that.
And as he showed in the dunk contest, he was a contestant for a reason. Lillard had one of the more underrated dunks of the night, throwing himself a pass, grabbing the ball in midair, bringing it down and cocking it before slamming it home. Oh, and not to mention he did all this while completing a 360 in the air. This explanation surely doesn't do that dunk service. It's one you have to watch to truly appreciate.
Yet dunking ability aside, the purpose of this is ranking players based on ceiling as players. It's hard to rank Lillard above the others, and here's why...
John Wall is arguably as good as Damian Lillard right now. However, Wall seems to have much more room to improve than Lillard.
The most obvious example of this is three-point shooting. While Lillard is already an established marksman, Wall is anything but. He's only hitting 32.1 percent of his three-pointers.
Shooting is one of those skills that can be improved on through practice. Of course, just because you can improve it, it doesn't mean you will. In this case Wall gets the benefit of the doubt because he's trending in a positive direction. Despite his lackluster percentage this year, the point guard was considerably worse a year ago, posting a three-point percentage of .267.
Lillard already made a considerable leap from Year 1 to Year 2 in this regard. Yet it's hard to imagine him getting much better than he is right now as an outside shooter. Wall, on the other hand, has plenty of room to improve and the potential of him doing so seems much more feasible.
Another skill that is more nature than nurture is jumping ability. Wall has plenty of that. In fact, Wall had the dunk of the night. In it, Wall jumped over the Wizards mascot, grabbing the ball from above the mascot's head, travelling under the hoop in air, then slamming down a backward slam. Definitely a crazy display of hang time on that one.
Apparently the dunk was one Wall had picked up in an online video. While the dunk looked incredibly difficult, Wall said it was actually pretty easy.
"There's some ideas out there. It's just the dunks are very hard to do," Wall said, via ESPN. "You've just got to trust yourself to go out there and try, and try to master it."
"It seemed hard, but for me it came out to be easy, so it worked out in my favor," Wall said.
Beyond that, Wall is the better defender of the two. His defensive rating is better (104 for Wall; 111 for Lillard), he gets more steals (2.0 per game for Wall; 0.7 for Lillard) and he's a better rebounder (4.2 per 36 minutes for Wall; 3.6 for Lillard).
One really couldn't go wrong with Wall or Lillard. But if we're talking pure ceiling and the chance of reaching it, which we are, then Wall's the better option.
Lillard and Wall are stars in this league; Paul George is already a superstar. He's on the short list of best two-way players in the NBA. After LeBron James and Kevin Durant, George enters the discussion of next-best player.
The small forward has been a very good defender for a few years now. Over the last two seasons, though, he's arguably been the league's best defensive player. In fact, last season his 6.3 defensive win shares paced the league. He's not off to a bad start in 2013-14 either, as his 4.5 defensive win shares is tops in the NBA.
Perhaps what's most encouraging about George's play is his improvement on offense. The 23-year-old is averaging a career-high 22.2 points per game. He's also boasting a shooting line of .438/.370/.856.
On top of that, George is a pretty good slam-dunk artist. He had one of the better dunks of the evening, pulling off a reverse 360 while going between his legs with the ball, slamming it home with one hand.
Between his athleticism, defense and improved offensive game, that George has the highest ceiling of the group seems pretty academic. To provide more context, though, his 7.9 win shares rank seventh in the league. Lillard's 6.3 rank 20th, while Wall's 5.2 come in 35th. And since each of the three is 23 years old, they all have about the same amount of time to capitalize on their talents before the inevitable decline.
With his age, skill set and current ability, George is the way to go. He's the player with the highest ceiling of all the slam-dunk participants.
Unless noted otherwise, all stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference
If you want to talk basketball, you can hit me up on Twitter @SimRisso