By Popular Demand, Paul George Returns to the Dunk Contest

by Wheat Hotchkiss
Pacers.com Writer/Editor
@Wheat_Hotchkiss

Paul George is becoming a mainstay at the NBA's All-Star Weekend.

For the third straight season, George will compete in an event as part of All-Star Saturday Night, as the 23-year-old budding superstar has accepted an invitation to participate in the 2014 Slam Dunk Contest. George will also serve as captain of the Eastern Conference team during Saturday night's events. George's East team will compete for charity against Stephen Curry's Western Conference squad.

George previously competed in the event in 2012 in Orlando. That year, he successfully executed a trio of crowd-pleasing dunks, but lost to Utah's Jeremy Evans.

In his first dunk that year, George jumped over two teammates, Dahntay Jones and 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert. For his second attempt, George had the lights turned off at the Amway Center and pulled off a 360-degree windmill in a glow-in-the-dark uniform. It was a spectacular dunk and a cool concept, but it was hard for fans to see the dunk itself live, which may have had an adverse impact on George's chances. In his third and final attempt, George paid homage to Pacers President Larry Bird by slapping a sticker with Bird's face on the backboard while dunking with his other hand.

After trying his hand at the Three-Point Shootout last year in Houston (and watching then-Pacers teammate Gerald Green vie for the dunking title), George is ready to give the Dunk Contest another go.

George's selection comes on the heels of a recent display of spectacular slams that have had fans clamoring for him to return to the competition, including one of the early favorites for the unofficial honor of "Dunk of the Year," a dazzling 360-degree windmill that stunned the sold-out crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse during the Pacers' victory over the Clippers on Jan. 18. The slam was eerily similar to Vince Carter's dunk in 2000, one of the most iconic moments in Slam Dunk Contest history.

In the Pacers' win in Atlanta on Tuesday night, George again unleashed a show-stopping dunk, when he threw down another windmill dunk that caught the attention of Dominique Wilkins, Hawks broadcaster and two-time Slam Dunk champion.

His recent in-game exploits made him a popular fan choice for the dunk contest, but George played coy with the media about whether or not he would accept an invitation all the way up through Thursday afternoon. When asked about participating in the dunk contest a few weeks ago, George said his decision hinged in part on who else was in the event.

"I want to be in it when the competition is good," George said at the time, according to Pacers.com's Scott Agness.

The competition this year is, indeed, very good.

On Feb. 16, George will headline one of the more star-studded dunk contest fields in recent memory. George will be joined by John Wall of the Washington Wizards, Terrence Ross of the Toronto Raptors, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, Harrison Barnes of the Golden State Warriors, and Ben McLemore of the Sacramento Kings.

This year's event will feature a new format with "Freestyle" and "Battle" rounds. In the Freestyle round, each contestant has 90 seconds to display as many dunks as they desire. In the Battle Round, George will face off head-to-head against one of the Western Conference dunkers (Lillard, Barnes, or McLemore). The first conference to win three battles will win the team competition, and then fans can vote for one player as "Dunker of the Night."

George, Wall, and Lillard all are 2014 All-Stars. Barnes was chosen to participate in the 2014 Rising Stars Challenge and McLemore was a top-10 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Ross is the defending Slam Dunk Contest champion, scoring 99 out of a possible 100 in his first two dunks last year before decisively winning the fan vote over Evans in the final round. And this group should only get better with time, as all six of the entrants are 23 or younger.

But while all of this year's contestants are part of the league's youth movement, none of the competitors' stars have yet soared as much as George's in the past few years. In just a couple years, the 6-foot-9 forward (George is the tallest of any of the six competitors in this year's contest) has grown from a virtual unknown out of Fresno State to one of the most popular players in the entire NBA.

In 2012, George was chosen to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge game featuring the best NBA players in their first or second year in the league. In 2013, he was chosen as a reserve on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. And this year, George was elected as a starter in the All-Star Game, collecting the third-most fan votes of any player in the league, a colossal increase from the previous year.

Barring injury, George will be the first player to compete in the dunk contest and start in the All-Star Game in the same year since Dwight Howard in 2009. George is one of seven Pacers players who have participated in the competition — the others are Terrence Stansbury, Kenny Williams, Antonio Davis, Jonathan Bender, Fred Jones, and Gerald Green. Jones won the 2004 contest, the only Pacers player yet to win.

But if George can replicate the performances he's been putting on in games come All-Star Weekend, Jones might have some company.