September 17, 2009

The attention was on the star: Vince Carter joining the Magic, forming a Big Four lineup alongside 2009 All-Stars Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson.

The trade with New Jersey, a bold move for a team coming off an NBA Finals appearance, grabbed headlines the day before the June draft. Would Carter round out the Magic into true championship form?

But lurking inside the trade was an extra piece that Magic coach Stan Van Gundy has already termed a crucial part of the deal, though it went largely unnoticed amid the hoopla. It was power forward Ryan Anderson.

The name isn't instantly recognizable, certainly not like Carter's. But the second-year forward just might emerge as the Magic's secret weapon this season -- one of many who surface in the NBA every year. They're the players who don't get the attention and remain anonymous during preseason speculation, but end up playing a vital role in their team's success. And Anderson has all the markings of that player for Orlando.

He is still largely an unknown, yet he led the Pac-10 in scoring as a sophomore at California with 21.1 points per game. The guys immediately behind him -- O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, Brook Lopez and James Harden -- were all lottery picks in the last two drafts (Anderson went 21st in 2008). And his summer league numbers from July (21.4 points, 9.4 rebounds, 41 percent three-point shooting) illustrate his potential.

Now look at how he complements the Magic's lineup. Orlando lacked a power forward who could pull defenders out of the paint whenever Lewis left the game last season, making it easier to double-team Howard. Anderson has the size to operate in the paint, but will also benefit from all those double teams as a kick-out option on the perimeter. If he can hit those shots consistently -- as he has already proved capable of doing -- teams may have to think twice about doubling down on Howard, freeing up the Magic's leader to operate more effectively.

And that is what could make Anderson a key weapon in Orlando's arsenal.

"When Rashard came out of the game and we went to the bench, we really had to play a different way," Van Gundy said in a press conference introducing Carter. "Now you get a guy who can really stretch the floor, and so I think it gives us even more flexibility. ... We can play the same way."

Anderson isn't the only overlooked asset poised to blossom this season. Some others who could emerge:

Martell Webster, Portland: The Blazers thought Webster was on the verge of a breakout last season, and felt that the four-year, $20 million contract to which they signed him would be a bargain once that happened. Instead, Webster broke a bone in his left foot that was slow to heal and kept him out all season. Now that Webster has been cleared for 5-on-5 practices, Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard has likened his return to a key free-agent signing on a team that already won 54 games last year. The 22-year-old adds the outside shooting threat the Blazers were pursuing in their courtship of Hedo Turkoglu, which they hope will pull defenses off Brandon Roy. Webster is also a solid wing defender and has steadily improved each year. If that continues, his return could be the piece needed to push the Blazers near the top of the Western Conference.

Amir Johnson, Toronto: After getting traded twice last summer, it's easy to forget that only a year ago Johnson was considered an untouchable prospect in Detroit's rebuilding plans. As a raw talent who entered the NBA straight out of high school, though, Johnson never got the playing time he needed to develop in Detroit. Even last year, when he was viewed as an essential part of the Pistons' future, Johnson averaged only 14.5 minutes while contending with a rotation that already featured Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess. Still, he has a freakish level of athleticism and a propensity for making exhilarating plays. Consistent time on the court may be all that's needed to get Johnson to prosper, and in Toronto he looks to be an ideal complement behind Chris Bosh. Keep in mind, Johnson is only 22 and already has four years of NBA experience. With a regular role and the extra motivation of being in a contract year, he could finally be ready for a breakthrough.

Carl Landry, Houston: Landry has already made an impact as a role player during his first two seasons, but the stage may now be set for him to become one of the Rockets' leaders. Ron Artest is gone to the Lakers and Yao Ming is out with a foot injury, removing two cornerstones of one of the NBA's best defenses last season. Landry is a nails-tough power forward who possesses the size to defend on the block and help out on the glass, and the footwork to capably pick up guards off switches. His toughness and versatility could help fill the void left by Yao and Artest.

Randy Foye, Washington: Foye got stuck with a label in Minnesota as the guy who was traded for Brandon Roy, and he came to symbolize the bumbling decision-making that led to the Timberwolves' recent slide. It was enough to overshadow one fact: Foye has steadily improved, and while he is no two-time All-Star like Roy, he is an effective offensive threat who averaged 16.3 points last season. He still isn't a great shooter, and as a combo guard it wasn't always clear where he fit in Minnesota. But those concerns could fade away in his new role as the backup to Gilbert Arenas and Mike Miller in Washington's backcourt. With his explosive scoring potential and ability to defend both guard positions, Foye could be an ideal fit in the Wizards' rotation.

Jason Thompson, Sacramento: Thompson has been competing outside the spotlight since the Kings drafted him 12th in 2008. But that's nothing new for someone who played college ball at Rider University in the MAAC. Thompson developed into one of the best rookies few seemed to know about last year, and is in a position to have a big sophomore season. He cracked the Kings' starting lineup midway through last season and averaged 12.3 points and 7.8 rebounds in those games while shooting 51 percent from the field. More impressive, rather than see his production peter out at the end of the season from hitting the so-called rookie wall, Thompson's performances got stronger. His numbers in April (14.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.3 blocks in 34 minutes) marked his best monthly averages of the season. He may have gone largely unnoticed in small-market Sacramento while doing that, but that may not last long.

Dahntay Jones, Indiana: Jones' jump shot has never raised many eyebrows, but his defense will certainly spark a reaction. Just ask Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who accused Jones of playing "unsportsmanlike basketball" last spring after tripping Kobe Bryant on a defensive play during the playoffs. It was part of a postseason in which Jones developed a nasty but effective edge, leading Denver coach George Karl to compare his work to recently retired defensive specialist Bruce Bowen. And that could make his new home in Indiana an ideal fit. Pacers president Larry Bird said Jones was the first free agent Indiana pursued last summer because of his ability to defend, something the team was looking to address. But coach Jim O'Brien's offense also looks to be a perfect marriage with Jones' game, which thrives in an open system that allows him more freedom to drive to the basket and draw contact.

Brandon Rush, Indiana: When Rush entered the league last year, some analysts were projecting his future would be as a glue guy who could defend and hit the occasional three-pointer, but otherwise wouldn't be looked upon as a shot creator. But that view changed dramatically in the final 13 games last season, when Rush grew into more of an offensive threat once the Pacers moved him into the starting shooting guard spot. He averaged 16.9 points -- nearly nine more than his season average -- and hit 53 percent of his shots in 35.6 minutes during that stretch. And with Mike Dunleavy still recovering from knee surgery, the Pacers will need Rush to continue to establish himself on the wing.

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