It didn’t take long for Zion Williamson to earn a spot in the Duke basketball record books when he recently broke the record for the vertical leap during the team’s combine drills.
Williamson arrives at Duke with a reputation of being an explosive player who produces highlight reel dunks. It was part of what made him a YouTube and Instagram sensation during his high school and AAU career.
We’re hopeful that he’ll have many highlight reel dunks as a Blue Devil, and his recent vertical leap video also inspired us to think about other great dunkers.
Here’s our list of the best dunkers (in no order!) in Duke basketball history.
Grant Hill had quite a collection of impressive dunks during his four years as a Blue Devil, including his unbelievable alley oop during the 1991 national championship game against Kansas that helped send the message that Duke had arrived as a premier program. I’d make the case that Hill is the most versatile player in Duke history, playing every position on the floor at various points during his college career. The alley oop is the signature play, but let’s not forget the time he also dunked on Tim Duncan on the road at Wake Forest.
Dahntay Jones was a fantastic athlete and he played with an edge that led to some nasty dunks for Duke. His throwdown over Nick VanderLaan at Virginia in 2003 is my all-time favorite Duke dunk, and it’s made even better by ESPN analyst Brad Daugherty’s response to the play. Man, I miss Brad Daugherty calling college basketball games.
Contrast Brad Daugherty’s joy and enthusiasm for a great play with how Len Elmore whined about Corey Maggette’s dunk against Florida. Elmore is totally that dude who calls the cops on his neighbors when they’re shooting off fireworks on the 4th of July. Despite how unhappy it made Len Elmore, Maggette showed in his one season at Duke that he was one of the most explosive players in the history of the program.
I’m trusting the advice of Duke fans who had the opportunity to watch Gene Banks because he was well before my time as a college basketball fan. However, seeing the clip of him dunking over 7’4” Ralph Sampson is proof enough that he knew how to finish at the rim with the best of them.
One of Duke’s most effective offensive sets during the 2008-09 season was getting the ball to Gerald Henderson on the left wing and giving him space to drive right and attack the rim, as seen in this ferocious dunk against Maryland. As Henderson developed his jumper during his time at Duke, it made his driving ability even more of a weapon.
Because Johnny Dawkins had such an illustrious career as an all-around scorer at Duke, his ability to play above the rim is usually overshadowed by his other accomplishments. Dawkins even participated in the NBA Slam Dunk contest in 1987 as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. His dunking prowess is even more impressive when you factor in that he’s only 6’2”.
It might seem odd to have Marvin Bagley here, but how can you put together a list of the best dunkers in Duke history and not include the player who set the record for most dunks in a season with 98? While they weren’t necessarily highlight reel dunks (though he proved capable of that in his opening NBA Summer League game with the Kings), Bagley’s leaping ability, energy and quickness enabled him to turn many plays into easy dunks that would otherwise be contested put-back attempts for most players.
Robert Brickey was a fan favorite during his time at Duke with his ability to finish at the rim. He was a wing player who didn’t take perimeter shots so attacking the basket was a key to Brickey’s game. He was also the perfect role player and helped the team to three Final Four appearances.
We don’t give big men enough credit as dunkers because it just seems naturally easier for them, but Mason Plumlee had some exceptional dunks at Duke. Though he’s 6’11”, Plumlee ran the floor as well as any big man in the country and had some outstanding plays in transition that led to impressive dunks.
Between Robert Brickey being on one wing and Phil Henderson being on the other, Duke had quite a duo of dunkers in the late 80s. Things became even more exciting with the arrival of point guard Bobby Hurley and his ability to distribute the ball to his teammates. Henderson’s dunk over Alonzo Mourning is up there with the Grant Hill alley oop as an iconic statement for the program, considering how Georgetown was viewed at that time.
When he was healthy, Grayson Allen was as good as any player in college basketball at attacking the rim. It’s partly why he won the McDonald’s All American Dunk Contest prior to his arrival at Duke. His elite athleticism was also recently on display at the NBA Combine leading up to the Draft, including an absurd 40.5” vertical leap.
Honorary Mention – Jayson Tatum vs. UNC
Jayson Tatum doesn’t get an official spot on the list of best dunkers, but he’s at least deserving of an honorary mention due to this monstrous dunk over Kennedy Meeks. If I could include his dunk on LeBron James in the playoffs this past year, I’d put him in the Hall of Fame.
Who’s your pick as the best dunker in Duke basketball history? Did I leave someone off the list? Let us know on Twitter at @DukeReport!