When Dr. James Naismith first came up with the idea for the foul shot, shortly after publishing his original rules for basketball in 1892, he decided that such attempts should take place 20 feet from the backboard. This proved to be too difficult for nascent hoopers, who most likely suffered from black lung and had lost most of their digits in the Second Opium War, and so the distance was shortened to 15 feet. Had you informed Naismith that, one day, people would be dunking from that line, he would say, “What’s dunking?” You would then have to explain dunking to him, and it would become this whole drawn-out thing that wasn’t worth getting into in the first place.
Lucky for us, we have all the appropriate context and can enjoy this dunk from Zion Williamson, an 18-year-old incoming freshman at Duke.
Williamson weighs 285 pounds, which is far too heavy to be doing this sort of thing. It’s like watching a armored truck clear the Grand Canyon.
The free-throw line dunk has a rich heritage, and anyone who manages to pull it off enters an elite club. But not all free-throw line dunks are created equal. How does Williamson’s effort rank? It’s of great historical importance, as he outweighs every other free-throw line dunker by hundreds of pounds. While he didn’t add too much stylistic flair, you don’t need to when you’re the size of an Airbus. What’s more, unlike some fakers who take flight with their feet fully inside the line, Williamson elevated with his toe just barely touching it.
To honor this giant teen’s feat, I’ve ranked the nine most impressive free-throw line dunks in history. (We’ll give Zion the No. 10 spot.)
9. Shelby McEwen
McEwen was a high school junior in the above video, which makes his effort all the more impressive. According to some light Googling, he is currently a track and field star at the University of Alabama and one of the nation’s top high jumpers. That checks out.
Historical import: This happened in 2014, the year Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” topped the charts. Apart from that, there is little historical impact here. I’m sure McEwen remembers it fondly.
Flourishes: None, though his post-dunk celebration is fantastic.
Is he really behind the line?: Yes! It’s a good, clean free-throw line dunk, and that’s why it’s on this list.
8. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis is uniquely suited to perform this type of dunk, as he has the height and wingspan to do this sort of thing with his feet planted firmly on the ground. Sadly, the Milwaukee Bucks star has yet to feature in an NBA dunk contest, but he has performed plenty of All Star weekend–caliber dunks in actual games, like the one above.
Historical import: The dunk itself was part of a larger moment, which is to say Antetokounmpo’s 2017 coming out party as a legitimate superstar. Madison Square Garden is considered the “Mecca of basketball,” and the league’s elite are expected to do something special whenever they step on this hallowed ground. Lucky for them, they only have to accomplish such feats against the New York Knicks, and the NBA’s most reliably embarrassing franchise often goes out of its way to accommodate other teams’ best players. Back to Giannis: In the game seen above, he capped off a fourth-quarter comeback with a buzzer-beating jumper.
Flourishes: The fact that this was an in-game dunk makes it special. Carmelo Anthony doesn’t exactly put his body on the line, but he plays enough defense to make this qualify as a slam “in traffic.”
Is he really behind the line?: Sadly, he was not. However, he did leap from an angle, and because I don’t know basic geometry, I feel comfortable in saying that this means he had to soar farther.
7. Brent Barry
Despite spending most of his career as a 3-point specialist, Barry is probably best known for the free-throw line slam that sealed the then-rookie’s victory in the 1996 NBA dunk contest.
Historical import: This dunk marked the first free-throw line attempt at an All-Star dunk competition since Scottie Pippen’s in 1990. Pippen didn’t progress out of the first round with his attempt, but Barry, bolstered by not having to compete against Dominique Wilkins, impressed enough to earn the trophy.
Flourishes: Barry famously kept his warmup jacket on, which is pretty neat. I used to have a similar jacket, and I remember it being rather crinkly. Kudos to Barry for overcoming that distraction.
Is he really behind the line?: His foot is on the line, though, as the commentator points out, “that’s from further back than Michael Jordan did on his.” This undoubtedly infuriated Jordan, which gives Barry some bonus points.
6. Pat Dickert
I don’t know anything about Pat Dickert beyond the fact that he is 6-foot-2, plays for the Division III Colby College Mules, and can jump impressively high and far.
Historical import: A young man dunking in an almost empty gym may not seem too impressive, but it marks one of the most outstanding achievements in the history of Colby men’s basketball. Suck on that, Bowdoin!
Flourishes: The video begins with Dickert holding his hand near the net to prove that he is, in fact, not very tall. In Maine, that counts as showmanship. As for the dunk itself, Dickert treads air like a swimming corgi plucked from the water, and it looks great.
Is he really behind the line?: Big time! Unlike with most dunks on this list, you can see a clear gap between his foot and the free-throw line. Nice work, Pat.
5. James White
James “Flight” White spent most of his career bouncing around European leagues and building his legend as one of the best dunkers on the planet. He eventually participated in an NBA dunk contest, in 2013, but he was sadly past his prime and didn’t live up to his storied potential. Let’s ignore that entirely, shall we, and instead focus on White’s performance at the 2006 NCAA slam dunk contest.
Historical import: Thanks to this dunk, White’s name came up after every bad NBA dunk contest in the mid- to late-2000s (and there were plenty), as it was downright criminal that the world’s most electric dunker was saving his best for Turkish television.
Flourishes: Up until this point, most free-throw line dunks were leaning, desperate reaches for the basket. White soared with such ease that he was able to cock back a two-handed slam.
Is he really behind the line?: On the line, but, again, two hands!
4. Julius Erving
Heresy, I know, but Dr. J’s free-throw line dunk from the 1976 ABA dunk contest—the first ever free-throw line dunk—doesn’t crack the top 3. Times change, man. Being the first doesn’t automatically make something the best, which is why we treat finger infections with antibiotics and not full arm amputations in Civil War–style triage tents.
Historical import: Not only is this the most historically important dunk on this list, it might be the most consequential dunk of all time. Erving elevated dunking into an art form, though, unlike art, dunking automatically makes you cool.
Flourishes: Erving also deserves credit (blame?) for adding theatrics to the dunk contest. He methodically measured out his runway and built excitement in an arena full of exhausted fans: The ABA held its dunk contest directly after the All-Star game, which made for an infamously long night of basketball.
Is he really behind the line?: Alas, he was not. Erving actually bet Denver Nuggets coach Doug Moe that he could take off from behind the stripe, and he lost $1,500 when he failed to do so.
3. Zach LaVine
LaVine can do pretty much any dunk he wants from the free-throw line, and I am rewarding him here for this stunning variety. Alley-oops, between-the-legs, 360s, windmills … you name it, he can do it from 15 feet out. It’s actually all a bit much. We get it dude, you can dunk.
Historical import: LaVine’s impact on history cannot be understated, as he’s the guy who has made dunking from the free-throw line kinda boring.
Flourishes: And how!
Is he really behind the line?: All his aforementioned dunks occurred with his foot either on or inside the line. In this regard and this regard only, LaVine is just like Michael Jordan and Julius Erving.
2. Michael Jordan
Julius Erving’s dunk may have been the first, but Jordan’s free-throw line slam at the 1988 NBA dunk contest is the most iconic.
Historical import: Had he lost this dunk contest to Dominique Wilkins, would the world be any different? I can’t fully explain this right now, but trust me when I say Jordan’s free-throw line slam is the reason we have LED lightbulbs today. Butterfly effect, and all that.
Flourishes: The fact that he dunked from the free throw line is almost unimportant, as his incredible style is what makes the dunk special. He could have done this dunk on an eight-foot rim and it still would be one of the coolest of all-time. But, then again, we’d still be using energy-wasting lightbulbs.
Is he really behind the line?: His heel is on the line, and that’s the only reason this dunk ranks second on my list.
1. Mike Conley Sr.
The 6-foot-1 Conley, the father of Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley Jr., was not himself an NBA player. He was an Olympic triple jumper, and as evidenced above, he had comically amazing hops. I cackle with joy every time I watch this dunk, which occurred during the 1992 Foot Locker Celebrity Slam Dunk Contest. Conley beat Ken Griffey Jr. and Deion Sanders in that event. Everything about this dunk is awesome.
Historical import: There is no event more consequential than the 1992 Foot Locker Celebrity Slam Dunk Contest.
Flourishes: Conley flings himself through the air with such abandon that it looks like the beginning of a Faces of Death clip. I genuinely worry for his safety, but he sticks the landing, because that’s what triple jumpers do. (Or at least what I think they do. I’m not too well-versed on the triple jump.)
Is he really behind the line?: Hell yeah he was behind the line, and it was wonderful.