Pacers' Cassius Stanley is ready to throw down on the big stage, his first-ever dunk contest
From G League bubble to the NBA's featured showcase, the Pacers rookie becomes the first player on a two-way contract to compete at All-Star weekend.
Cassius Stanley attended Duke University for just one season, but he left his mark behind. At 6-foot-6, he recorded a 46-inch max vertical leap before the season.
It was a new Duke record. It topped Zion Williamson’s 45-inch vertical, but Stanley was most satisfied that he now owned the school record.
“It was pretty crazy,” he said.
Stanley, a 21-year-old rookie, will show off his athleticism and leaping abilities this weekend in the NBA’s All-Star slam dunk contest, held at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. It was a call he wasn’t expecting and an opportunity he considered for several days before accepting over the weekend.
“I did need some time just because I came off a foot injury during the bubble,” he explained in a one-on-one interview with Fieldhouse Files. “That was definitely a thought in my mind, I don’t want to do it if I’m not healthy.
“And then it was just about do I want to do it? I definitely went back and forth, but talking to everyone it was a no-brainer. And then once I started to really think about it, I was like I’ve always wanted to be in a dunk contest, this has been a dream of mine so why not go for it?
His father, Jerome Stanley, helps in two roles: dad and agent. He called Cassius about a week ago to first run the idea by him. Then Stanley heard from Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan, who is constantly in contact with the players.
“He was one of the biggest people who helped me make the decision because whatever (the NBA) called and offered, I was always going to call and check in with Chad or KP (Kevin Pritchard),” Stanley said. “I just wanted to get get their take. Me and Chad talked about 20, 25 minutes and he really just helped me. He kind of laid out the pros and cons, and he said everyone with the Pacers is supporting me with my decision in whatever I do. Just knowing I had that support of everyone in the organization, that really swayed me to do it.”
Even then, Stanley said he made his own pros and cons list, then called some of the people closest to him to see if their thoughts lined up with his. When they did, that was even more reassurance that it was the right call.
“I know he didn’t want to be considered just a dunker,” Mad Ants GM Brian Levy said. “He wants to be considered an all-around basketball player. From an exposure standpoint, from an experience standpoint, you can’t guarantee that you’re ever going to get that chance to do that again.
“It’s a crazy year, it’s gonna be an All-Star that you’ll definitely remember for the rest of your life.”
Stanley will become the 10th player to officially represent the Pacers in the slam dunk contest, the 11th counting Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman — the very first slam dunk champion. It’s not officially recognized by the NBA, but after Glenn Robinson III won it in 2017, the team surprised Hillman with a trophy to recognize his victory from 1977. Former Pacer Fred Jones won in 2004.
Hear my entire interview with Stanley, plus Mad Ants GM Brian Levy, on the Fieldhouse Files podcast below.
This will be Stanley’s first time participating in a slam dunk contest.
He still remembers the first time he dunked. Who wouldn’t? Growing up in Los Angeles, he was between the sixth and seventh grades. It went down during new school orientation.
“I was just messing around in the gym,” he recalled. “I had never fully gotten a clean dunk before then and it kind of just happened. And ever since then, it sped off and it went on to where we are now.
“I just kept trying crazy things and then it started to become natural, and that’s what it is now.”
Stanley often dunks after practice just for fun and several times after Pacers games, he and Jalen Lecque returned to the court in their game shorts to have some fun. His mother, Tonya Sedwick, competed in track & field at UCLA, so perhaps that’s where he got his bounce.
Being in this dunk contest is more than a huge opportunity, it’s also part of history. Something Stanley, who’s inspired by the jams of Michael Jordan and Zach LaVine, is well aware of.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of the dunk contest,” he said. “Ever since I was super young. I remember always around All-Star weekend, they would always show replays on NBA TV. I would watch it like it’s a homework or something. I can pretty much give you every single winner of every single year. Like if there was dunk contest trivia, I’d clearly win.
“Now that I’m gonna be in it, anytime I’m thinking of a dunk, I’m like ‘OK, has this been done or can I add a spice or variation to it?’ During this time, I’ve watched dunk contests and it’s pretty much like second nature to me — watching these contests and knowing what dunks they’re gonna do and what dunks worked and what didn’t work.”
Stanley has been doing his homework all week and utilized his network. He learned a lot from Victor Oladipo — whose max vertical at IU was 42 inches, a former school record — during his first two months with the Pacers. Stanley didn’t pretend to have all the answers and was not afraid to ask questions. His locker was to the left of Oladipo’s.
On Monday, he texted Oladipo, a two-time dunk contest participant (2015, 2018), to ask for his best advice.
“He said don’t wear yourself out,” Stanley said. “Obviously you want to practice and make the dunks beforehand, but you want to save your legs for the big day.”
He then texted Paul George, another two-time participant (2012, 2014). He worked out with George a couple summers ago in LA, and PG has helped Stanley, a fellow Cali guy, get comfortable in Indy. He passed along the go-to barber, good food spots and things to do.
“He gave me the best advice,” Stanley said. “Go out there and have fun. It’s your show, it’s your spotlight and just use it that way. Just know it’s going to be three guys and it’s your spotlight. Obviously the All-Star game is the All-Star game, but everyone knows Saturday night — even though it’s technically Sunday (this year) — everyone watches the dunk contest so make it your show.”
Last year’s Saturday night events in Chicago averaged 5.1 million viewers, per Nielsen, compared to the All-Star game’s 7.3 million viewers, which was up eight percent on 2019 in Charlotte. All events this year will be televised nationally on TNT and reach fans in 215 countries and territories in more than 50 languages.
Because of the ongoing pandemic, it’s going to be a one-night showcase with Saturday night events moved to Sunday. That means there will likely be a bigger TV audience.
The dunk contest will go down at halftime, so likely around 9:30 p.m. ET.
Being in the bubble, players and teams can’t use courts whenever they’d like. So this week, the G League set Stanley up with special on-court time to prepare. He’s brainstormed ideas and narrowed his list. He also understands the importance of nailing them on the first attempt or two. Nobody wants to sit around for a fifth attempt (or more).
“That’s what I’m really worried about right now,” said Stanley, the first player on a two-way contract to be invited to All-Star weekend. “Trying to find the contrast and blend of creativity and difficulty, but also ability to make it on the first or second try. I think I’ve come down to three or four dunks that I know I can make consistently and know they’ve never been done in the dunk contest.”
Paul George had a custom glow in the dark gold jersey made for 2012. Three years later, Oladipo took the court dressed in a tuxedo shirt and a black top hat while singing Frank Sinatra’s, “New York, New York” to the crowd in Brooklyn. He then received a perfect score after successfully completing a 360-degree reverse jam.
Stanley says he’s a flare guy, too.
“With it being such short notice and having to get things approved the day after they asked me, I’m more than likely will not have any extreme props. But you never know, I might think of something,” he teased. You’ll likely see him in their gold Statement Edition uniform they wore on opening night.
And if he needs an assist, he can ask Domantas Sabonis, a two-time All-Star and skills challenge participant.
The other two competitors are also young, relatively unknown guys: Knicks rookie Obi Toppin and Anfernee Simons of the Trail Blazers. “I know they’re both super athletic. It’s gonna be a good one," Stanley said.
Two of three will advance to the final round and perform one dunk. The slam dunk champion will be determined by the judges and not their individual scores.
The five judges (Dee Brown, Jason Richardson, Josh Smith, Spud Webb and Dominique Wilkins) have won a combined seven slam dunk titles.
When Stanley leaves the G League bubble for Atlanta, it will be for the first time in more than five weeks. He and the rest of the Mad Ants have been away from Indiana since Jan. 27. That’s when they boarded their commercial flight to Orlando.
Before then, they all gathered in Indy because they had to test negative for coronavirus seven straight days before flying, then four more days upon arrival.
“Everything down here is top notch,” he said. “It’s the perfect amount of time, a little over a month.”
Stanley landed awkwardly on his right foot of the second game, but continued playing. He sat out the next three game (of 15) due to the injury. The Mad Ants played their final game Friday and did not qualify for the playoffs. Stanley will leave the bubble, be joined by his mom, dad and cousin in Atlanta, and then rejoin the Pacers for the second half of the season.
“I talk to T.J. McConnell. He one’s of my most favorite people to talk ever. If you say who do I miss, definitely T.J. McConnell,” he said laughing. “I miss him and Doug McDermott. Every day we always come in and talk about college basketball, they get on me about Duke so having those guys is definitely fun.”
Stanley was a starter at Duke, but played for just one season. He averaged 12.6 points per game and recorded five 20-point games.
“It was time, place and moment,” he said of his decision to move on after his freshman year, taken 54th overall by the Pacers. “My main goal was to learn so much from Coach K.”
He learned the Duke way, set a school record and earned his way to the best league in the world. Since his right foot has improved, competing in the contest is a no-brainer because of the exposure and a potential ‘welcome to the NBA’ moment.
There’s also the added bonus of raising money for a historically black university through the TMCF COVID-19 HBCU Emergency Fund.
All three contestants will choose an HBCU and Stanley intends to help Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science — home of the famed summer Drew League in Los Angeles — and the better he does, the more money will be donated.
Each school will receive a $50,000 donation and the dunk winner earns an additional $100,000 donation. Plus, AT&T is chipping in another $40,000 for the winner and $30,000 for each runner-up.
“A little bit of nerves, but at the end of the day it’s gonna be fun,” he said. “It’s a great experience and a huge opportunity bigger than basketball. Just me being in the competition helps an HBCU and COVID relief so it’s just gonna be a really fun event.”