LOS ANGELES - As practice wrapped up at the Lakers facility in L.A. on Thursday, Terrence Ross hung around to work on his aerial acrobatics with the assistance of teammate DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan threw the Raptors' sophomore and reigning NBA Slam Dunk champion lobs off the side of the backboard, he tossed bounce passes and threw alley-oops. Ross experimented with a variation of finishes.
As it turns out, they could both use the practice.
The Raptors duo will take part in State Farm All-Star Saturday Night - taking place in New Orleans on Feb. 15 - as Ross returns to defend his title in the Sprite Slam Dunk competition and DeRozan will make an unexpected appearance in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge.
After edging out Jeremy Evans to win last year's contest in Houston, Ross will have his work cut out for him this time around. For the first time since 1988, three all-stars - Pacers forward Paul George, Wizards guard John Wall and Blazers guard Damian Lillard - will compete in the event. Rounding out the field is Warriors forward Harrison Barnes and Kings rookie guard Ben McLemore.
"Everybody's kind of a threat," Ross said of this year's competition. "It's going to be fun, everybody wants to win."
What will Ross do for an encore? The 23-year-old says he's still searching for ideas, scouring YouTube, Twitter and even using video games to brainstorm.
"Everybody's done everything," he continued. "I don't know, it's like how many times can you do the same dunk before people get tired of it? So it's hard to find new dunks but at the same time you always find something a little different."
The one thing he could say with certainty is he will not be using props.
While Ross has expected to defend his crown since last season, DeRozan's debut in the Skills Challenge comes as a surprise, even to him.
"I kind of got peer pressure into doing it," said the first-time all-star, who will also be assisting Ross in the dunk-off.
DeRozan initially declined the invitation but his agent twisted his arm and eventually he came around.
"I changed my mind. I said I'll try it, why not."
"I thought it would be fun," he said of the event, which is usually exclusive for point guards but DeRozan hopes to start a new era of shooting guards entering and conquering the ball handling/passing obstacle course. "Everybody doesn't get a chance to be a part of All-Star Weekend and the big thing for me is to go out there and have fun. I think it will be cool to go out there and represent my team as much as I can and you never know, I might mess around and win it."
Along with DeRozan, the participants will consists of Lillard, Goran Dragic, Reggie Jackson and rookies Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke.
DeRozan, who has previously competed in the Slam Dunk contest on two separate occasions, will be the first Raptor to appear in the Skills Challenge. Although he wouldn't tip his hand, his strategy centres on speed over precision.
"I look at it like, a lot of players go out there and try to do it cool," said the fifth-year guard. "I always used to say, you can go a little faster. So I've got my whole mindset to try and win it."
The format in both events will be tweaked this season.
The Skills Challenge will feature four teams of two players each competing in a two-round timed relay-style course. The fastest team from each conference will advance to the second and final round, where the winning pair will be crowned.
The Dunk Contest participants will also compete in teams, divided by conference. The competition will tip off with a "freestyle round" where the dunkers for each the East and the West will have 90 seconds to showcase as many dunks as they choose. At the conclusion of the opening round, the panel of judges will vote for a winning conference.
The winning conference will decide whether its competitors will dunk first or second in the following round, a head-to-head "battle round". In the battle round dunkers from opposing conferences will face off against each other, with the judges choosing a winner in each battle. The first team to win three battles will win the competition. Fans will then vote on the "Dunker of the Night" from the winning team.
Ross is the fifth Raptor to participate in the event, joining DeRozan, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Jamario Moon.