By RJ Young
James Harden is surgical from three point range, smoother than a 911 Porsche driving the lane, and more lethal than King David with the rock in his hands.
No, Harden is not a superhero but he’s been playing Dr. Naismith’s game like one for the better part of his career.
At just 21-years-old, he has locked up a role on the Oklahoma City Thunder that only a few in the NBA have made a living playing.
As the Thunder’s sixth man last season, Harden was responsible for jump-starting a sometimes stagnate offense, while instinctively picking up the flow of the game and what was needed from him not so much as a guard in Scott Brooks system, but as an ingredient in a team chemistry experiment that dates back to a 2008 team that was once the youngest and worst in the NBA.
However, Harden was not always the solid role-playing perimeter scorer that he has been for the Thunder, though, he has always been a solid, if not Gervin-esque, scorer.
Dating back to his high school days, Harden has shown an uncanny ability to score the rock. From the time he first saw significant playing time at Artesia High School in Lakewood, California, he’s been known as a threat from anywhere on the court.
He went from averaging 13.2 points during his sophomore season to 18.8 points as a senior at Artesia. That average points per game along with 7.7 rebounds per game and 3.5 assists per game got Harden looks from top college basketball programs around the country, but according to Harden it was always going to be Arizona State.
“There were a couple of reasons. (ASU assistant Scott Pera) was my high school coach and guided me throughout my career.” Harden tells Athonsports.com “He basically brought me to the point I am now. Plus, I wanted to play again with (ASU point guard) Derek Glasser. I felt comfortable with him. We got that connection. And the system they play, Coach (Herb) Sendek coming here, it was just a good fit for me.”
Even in his first year as head coach at Arizona State, Herb Sendek knew that James Harden was a player. He centered his offensive scheme around the arsenal of his dynamic shooting guard, and in doing so was able to lead the Sun Devils to an NIT birth where they eventually fell to the, then, defending national champion Florida Gators.
Over the course of his college career, Harden enjoyed playing in an offense that was built around his left-handed jumper and his ability to explode towards the rack. He averaged 17.8 points as a freshman and was named to the All Pac-10 first team and freshman.
At the start of the 2008-2009 season he was named to the Wooden Award preseason watch list as a sophomore. During that season Harden had one memorable 40-point outburst against the University of Texas El Paso Miners on November 30. His 40-point mark still stands as the fifth highest single game scoring performance in Sun Devil history.
Harden dropped 30 or more points three times that season, led the Pac-10 with 18 games of 20 or more points and led the Sun Devils in scoring 46 times out of a possible 69 career games.
He was named the 2009 Pac-10 player of the year and promptly decided to enter the 2009 NBA draft. It was also around this time in Harden’s life that his epic beard was born and Arizona State’s “Die Harden” slogan gave way to “Fear the Beard.”
DraftExpress.com gave great insight into Harden’s attributes as a future NBA player in their report leading up to the 2009 NBA Draft.
“A lot of Harden’s efficiency comes from an area that most probably wouldn’t expect it to. In spite of his perceived athletic limitations, Harden was a terrific finisher around the basket this season. In terms of things a team can count on him to do well in the short-run, his ability to score with space deserves consideration at the top of that list. Harden’s intelligence and excellent skill-level really shine through in his ability to score in transition–which was an important part of his game in college.”
Harden became the 36th man in Arizona State University history to be drafted into the NBA. Other notable Sun Devils include, Fat Lever, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach, Byron Scott, and Miami Heat guard, Eddie House. Harden was the first Sun Devil ever be taken amongst the first five picks in any NBA draft, going number three overall to the Thunder in 2009.
In his rookie season, Harden averaged 9.9 points per game in just 22.9 minutes per game and a season-high 26 points against Golden State. He’s yet to notch a 30 point in a game, and has never played more than 33 minutes in the NBA. He shot above average from three point range at a 37.5 percent clip and was an 80 percent free throw shooter. All of this says “raw,” but it also says he’s yet to be let go to do what he does best: show no mercy to the rim.
This year will test Harden more than the last. He has proven he can be a valuable contributor to the Thunder and is the only one of many Thunder guards entering training camp with a realistic shot at unseating starting guard Thabo Sefolosha, but more than likely he will reprise his role of sixth man.
In summer league play he showed again just how great he can be when he is allowed to attack the rim and take on defenders in isolation sets.
His head coach, Scott Brooks, recently told The Oklahoman, “We like what he does, but like I told him, ‘The pressure that you have is to play every night hard and play for your teammates and make plays. You don’t have to go in there and give us 15 to 20 points. You’ve got to go in there and attack and be aggressive and make the right basketball play.’”
I think Harden can give Brooks what he’s asking for and then some this season.