Supporting talents taking key roles

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It's a funny thing, though. Championships can't be won without the appropriate supporting players, those hungry, humble, affordable between-the-cracks guys who can't carry a team but can keep one rolling. So, sure, Shaquille O'Neal, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and their ilk will speak loudest in the postseason, but lesser-known guys like J.J. Hickson will have their say as well.

J.J. who?


The Cleveland forward is among a group of young, emerging players on teams that are contending for a playoff spot, and more, who could play crucial roles to the outcome of their team's season. They're the wind beneath the wings, to quote noted basketball analyst Bette Midler.

Teams like the Cavaliers get all misty-eyed over them. They've got LeBron, they've got Shaq, they've got another scorer in Mo Williams, but they'll need a guy like Hickson if they're to win a championship. His statistical contributions are modest -- 7.9 points and 3.5 rebounds -- but he has a knack for helping bring victories. Hickson has started 12 of the Cavs' 18 games. The Cavs have won 10 of them, including five-of-six when Shaq sat down with a strained left shoulder. Hickson averaged 15.7 points on 70 percent shooting over a six-game stretch that missed coinciding with O'Neal's injury by one game, and he has stayed in the starting lineup when Shaq returned.

James must have known what Hickson could contribute, because he all but adopted him over the summer. On the court and off, Hickson hung with LeBron. Learned from LeBron. Absorbed LeBron's LeBronness.

"I was a sponge," Hickson said.

Hickson, who averaged 4 points as a rookie last season, came off the bench for the Cavs' first six games. After a disappointing 3-3 start, he got his first starting call against New York although he had scored 5 points over those first six games.

"When I'm starting I know my minutes are going to be there," he said. "I'm not playing on eggshells. Playing with LeBron, Anthony Parker, Mo, Shaq and those guys, it makes the game so much easier for me. I don't get plays called for me, and yet I'm scoring. I'm just playing off my teammates."

The trick for him will be to do that and still remain aggressive. James has already warned him about that.

"J.J.'s still learning," James said. "Sometimes he relaxes a little bit. He can never relax because he's too athletic."

Here are four more emerging players likely to play crucial roles for their teams:

• George Hill, San Antonio. The second-year combo guard out of that traditional basketball powerhouse IUPUI (Indiana University, Purdue University at Indianapolis) averaged 5.7 points last season, He's averaging 11.3 while hitting 40 percent of his three-point shots now, and just one turnover in his 27 minutes per game. In the four games he started at point guard for the injured Tony Parker, he averaged 16.5 points. Starter or reserve, point guard or shooting guard, he'll be crucial to any chance the Spurs have in the West.

• Channing Frye, Phoenix. His career seemed to be running a slow down-and-out pattern after he averaged 4.2 points last season in Portland. His scoring had dropped in each of his four seasons before signing with the Suns over the summer, but now look at him. He's averaging 12.9 points in the glow of Steve Nash's Suns-shine offense as an undersized center, hitting 46.8 percent of his three-point shots. The Suns finished 46-36 last season. With Frye replacing Shaquille O'Neal at center and the Suns reverting to the up-tempo style of their golden days, they're now 14-5 and a surprising factor in the West.

• Ryan Anderson, Orlando. Most people didn't pay much attention when he was tossed into the deal that brought Vince Carter to the Magic from New Jersey. They should have. After a solid rookie season with the Nets, when he averaged 7.4 points, the 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 10.9 points and hitting 38.7 percent of his three-pointers. Carter has provided a major upgrade at shooting guard, and Anderson has helped make the loss of Hedo Turkoglu go virtually unnoticed, putting the Magic in position to reach the Finals again.

• Ersan Ilyasova, Milwaukee. The Bucks aren't a title contender, but they're a surprising playoff factor in the East. Rookie point guard Brandon Jennings has been a sensation, although he's dropped a stratosphere or two in recent weeks, and Ilyasova has been a major factor as well. He's averaging 11.5 points and 7.4 rebounds in just 23.5 minutes per game, hitting 37.3 percent of his three-pointers. The Turkish forward barely made a ripple as a 19-year-old rookie three years ago, but after returning to Europe for two seasons he's come back with a grown-up game. He'll be a major factor as Milwaukee tries to buck its recent tradition of postseason absenteeism.