He's well-named, this bearded cat who accelerates like he's in the Johnson Space Center instead of the NBA. Who scores like he's James Franco speed-dating. Who took facial grooming lessons from ZZ Top and Uncle Jesse on The Dukes Of Hazzard.
Well-named, because to paraphrase the last great Who album:
Hard to score 25 points a night in the NBA.
So Hard that right now, there are only five players who can do it, and four of them you know by one name only.
Kobe. Carmelo. Durant. LeBron.
Despite his name, the fifth guy to average 25 points per game doesn't make it look Hard. Nope, just like those other four guys, Harden makes it look Easy.
Barely six months removed from coming off the bench, where he was the third-best player on his own team, Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden is now arguably one of the NBA's best players. After all, when you score 25 points per game, you enter very rarefied air. Heck, only 12 players in the history of the NBA have career averages of 25 points or more.
Let's put it this way: If you don't know a player's name, but you know he logs 25 points and 5.4 assists per game, wouldn't you want that player on your roster?
That includes the All-Star roster.
James Harden is a burgeoning—wait for it—superstar in the NBA.
Yes, I used the hallowed "s" word. What gives me the right to pin that moniker on Harden?
Simple: Harden and his game feature four Hard-earned qualities you'll only find in Hardcore superstars.
Harden's high school coach, Scott Pera, recalls in a New York Times interview that Harden had a tendency to stay back and wait for his opportunity.
“When the games came," Pera said, "he shot. But rarely did he take more than 12 shots a game to get his 17 or 20 points.”
After a season-opening loss Harden's junior year, Pera told the 16-year-old, "We can't win unless you start shooting more."
"I don't want everybody to think I'm a gunner," Harden replied.
But they both remembered the time Harden's mother, her son in tow, had walked into Pera's office and given her son simple marching orders: "This is your coach. Whatever he says goes."
Harden did as his coach asked.
His high school team never lost again.
When Harden arrived at Arizona State University, another mentor saw a player who had more gears to access.
“If you ask James Harden to tell you one thing he heard from [me] for two years, he’ll tell you: ‘Play with a motor. Play with a motor,'" said NBA coach Doug Collins. "[Harden] had no motor in college. None.”
Collins frequently visited the Sun Devils’ workouts and struck up a relationship with Harden.
“[Collins] taught me a lot,” Harden said. “He would mentor me. He would tell me that I had to have a motor…to be successful…in the NBA. My sophomore year, the reason I came back [to college] was to learn and build my motor up. He was the reason for that."
When he was drafted by Oklahoma City, his Thunder teammates, superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, were gym rats—guys who got to practice early and stayed late. Harden used their influence, and in Collins' words, "to add more horsepower to what he had under the hood."
We've all heard stories about sports' greatest stars putting in their dues such as Michael Jordan's "breakfast club" or Roger Clemens' legendary workout regimens. I remember reading an article before Barry Sanders' final season that the running back had taken to running quarter-mile wind sprints.
You hear similar stories about Harden now, playing around the world long after shootarounds are over. His hard-earned stamina gives Harden the fuel to explode toward the hoop, possession after possession, and keep his motor running all game, every game.
As a result, Collins says, “When [Harden's] coming down the floor with the ball, he is very similar to LeBron James: Size, strength, speed…[plus Harden] seeks contact on every play.”
And Collins, Michael Jordan's first NBA coach, adds, “It’s funny, when he sees me, he’ll say, ‘I’ve got a motor now, coach.’ ”
That he does—and it's one few teams can figure out how to stop.
Getting to the line
They say superstars get the calls.
Then perhaps there's no finer benchmark to announce Harden's ascension to the superstar ranks.
Harden is tied for first in the NBA with an incredible 10 free-throw attempts per game. He has an uncanny ability to throw defenders off, sometimes with fancy moves, sometimes simply with a well-executed dribble-drive—lowering his head and taking it to the rim.
Add to it the need to contest his fairly good three-point shot, which has been deadly as recently as last season and still must be respected, and you've got a recipe for bumps, bruises and trips...to the charity stripe, that is.
Oh, and of those 10 attempts? Harden is making 8.6 of them. He's first in the NBA here as well...except it's not a tie.
Most superstars will readily tell you that great stat lines are all about making the most of what you're given. Two shots without defenders in your face from a mere 14 feet—don't send me letters...15 feet is from the line to the backboard and the rim sticks out—qualifies as a gift. A superstar makes the most of that gift.
Leading the league in free throws attempted and made per game, it's pretty obvious that Harden is doing just that.
James Harden had a reputation before he came to Houston for his pinpoint pocket passes. Sure enough, Harden's highlight reel of amazing assists as a Rocket continues to quickly pile up.
But they don't all have to be of the Sportscenter variety—as long as they come with frequency. As a shooting guard—even as one who often has the ball in his hands in half-court sets—5.7 assists per game is an excellent tally.
It is good enough to put him in first place in the NBA among shooting guards in assists per game and sixth in assists per 48 minutes.
Some might point to the fact that Houston's assist percentage as a team is slightly better when Harden's not in the game than when he is. To that I simply say yes—and note the word "slightly."
What do I mean? Harden shoots 17 times a game, and yet he still finds his teammates for passes at almost the same rate as when Houston's top scorer is not in the game—in other words, at a time when the team would truly be expected to share the ball.
Taken in that context, the same stat transforms from damning into damned impressive—and an unquestionable mark of Harden's unselfishness.
The Houston Rockets showed confidence in Harden when they gave him his max deal. Harden has returned the favor every time he steps on the court.
Harden wasn't fazed a bit by going from sixth man to The Man. He reeled off two big games (37 points and 45 points, respectively) to prove that point statistically.
He has also proven that he won't back down, even against the game's greatest stars. Here he is, still with the Thunder, giving Kobe an earful.
And finally, there's just something indefinable that the game's greats have. Harden plays as if he expects his shots to go in, expects to get a foul call and expects to win.
He plays with swagger.
It's an ineffable quality, but it's one Harden shares with virtually every NBA superstar.
Harden still has a ways to go to be considered among the game's true elites.
His play can be out of control, often because he makes much of his living at the free-throw line. And if he doesn't get calls, Harden can look frantic and desperate as he tries make something happen.
Like many NBA players, Harden prefers playing from being the arc or at the rim. He does not have a fully developed mid-range game. It's perhaps the element Harden could most benefit from; a mid-range jumper would make him absolutely devastating.
In shooting percentage, Harden is currently 77th. Last year Harden was much more deadly, so there is reason to be optimistic he will raise that stat. But currently, it's certainly an area of concern.
Yet despite these flaws in his game, Harden confounds opponents possession after possession and game after game.
Simply put, he's Hard to guard, and Hard to handle, when he's driving Hard to the hoop—because he's Hard-wired for scoring.
Hard as his rise may be to believe, you'd be Hard-pressed to disagree: James Harden is on his way to becoming the NBA's newest—and beardiest—superstar.
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