Danny Green, SG
Key contribution: Defense, dirty work
Step up. It might be the most overused phrase in basketball. Nowhere is it tossed around more haphazardly than when a star goes down and a reserve is called on to fill his shoes. That's exactly what 24-year-old shooting guard Green did when injuries limited Manu Ginobili to just 26 games this year. The 6-foot-6 Green, who played just 28 games in his first two seasons, has matured before head coach Gregg Popovich's eyes by serving up a well-rounded display of defense, hustle, attitude and willingness to perform the less glamorous aspects of the game.
Green isn't particularly great at one skill but offers up a wide variety of things that can be stuffed into a box score. And many that can't. He'll take charges, dive on the floor, knock down open jumpers and be a sheer nuisance on defense. He also scarcely turns the ball over -- just 1.1 turnovers in 23.9 mpg. Defensively, he can contain quick guards on the perimeter or body bigger small forwards in the lane. On offense he doesn't require the ball much to have an impact and is more comfortable offering up floaters or taking it to the rim than he is shooting midrange jumpers. The 46th overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft appears to have found a home in San Antonio. The shooting guard tandem of Green and Ginobili should be as compelling (and dangerous) as any that will play in the postseason.
Kenneth Faried, SF/PF
Key contribution: Athleticism, hustle, rebounding
The guy known as the Manimal is the best athlete in the NBA you don't know anything about. He's also been, without question, the surprise of this year's rookie class. Because of his athletic ability and length Faried can toggle between small and power forward -- he could even guard some centers if need be -- but we'll drop him in here because he'll ultimately have the biggest impact at the 3 spot (plus he's 6-6 without shoes). How's this for impact? Faried is the only rookie in the last 10 years to average at least seven rebounds while shooting 58 percent (over 70 percent of his shots are at the rim). He leads all rookies in rebounding with 7.4 and is tops among first-year players in field goal percentage (min. 10 games). Since Feb. 20 the Nuggets are 7-0 when he gets a double-double.
With a 41-inch vertical, Faried is an outstanding leaper who can tirelessly spring off the floor several times on the offensive glass. He can also move quickly in small spaces to track down rebounds and loose balls. On help defense he can cross the lane with one giant step and has the lateral movement to quickly recover if the ball is reversed. Get him in the open floor and he really shines. His pure speed up the floor is breathtaking and makes him a frequent target for Nuggets guards looking to push. On April 9 he had a season-defining game against the Warriors with career-high 27 points and 17 rebounds. Enthusiastic, motivated and highly coachable, expect Faried to do something very unrookie-like: blossom in the playoffs.
Ersan Ilyasova, PF
Key contribution: Three-point shooting, rebounding
The Bucks need a strong late-season push to make up the 1 games that separate them from the eighth and final playoff spot. That means more Ilyasova. One of the league's best-kept secrets, Ilyasova is a big, tough rebounding forward with an accurate touch from behind the arc. When it comes to versatile power forwards Ilyasova is Kevin Love-lite. In fact, the sweet-shooting big is the only player in the league averaging at least 8 rebounds while shooting 44 percent from 3-point land.
He averages just 1.8 3s per game (a career low), but at the clip he's shooting, a couple more looks -- perhaps as a trailer, a la Love -- could certainly help Milwaukee's chances without detracting from his work on the boards, which is the bigger need. Drawing his defender further away from the basket would give Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis a bit more room to get to the rim.
But Ilyasova will need to somehow be an increased presence on the boards if the Bucks are going to have a shot at the playoffs and compete with the Bulls, their likely first-round opponents. His track record on the glass indicates he's up for the job. On Feb. 19, Ilyasova delivered one of the best lines of the season with 29 points and 25 rebounds, which made him one of three players this year (Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum) to grab at least 25 rebounds in a game. Not bad for a guy most fans had little knowledge of prior to the season.
Spencer Hawes, C
Key contribution: Rebounding, passing
Even though Sixers head coach Doug Collins has been tinkering with the lineup -- most notably making rookie center Nik Vucevic the starter in favor of Hawes -- it doesn't change the fact that the fifth-year center will be a key piece of Philly's playoff run.
A strained Achilles limited Hawes to 29 games, but his impact has been obvious as he leads the Sixers in rebounding (7.5) and is second in blocked shots (1.4). He's also a terrific passer for a big -- handing out an excellent 2.6 assists per game -- which is vital considering the roster is jammed with players who like to catch and shoot as well as cut to the rim. In fact, Hawes is second in the league among centers in assists.
Most teams have difficulty with skilled bigs who can get their own shots inside and Hawes has a rather underappreciated array of moves, including a solid jump hook and ability to spin away from the defense on the block. Hawes' tendency to be inconsistent has prevented him from becoming a top-10 center, but ironing out that correctable problem, Hawes' impact inside could help get the Sixers into the second round. With a premium on skilled bigs during the shortened rotation of the playoffs, it's a perfect opportunity for Hawes to establish himself as a postseason breakout.