A few months ago, a YouTube user put together a 10-minute clip showing some of the outstanding defensive plays Harden has made this season. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted it out with the following proclamation: "16-4 & top defense w/majority of our starters out does not happen by accident. I present 2-way player & MVP @JHard13."
"He can be a great defender, and I think we’re seeing that," says Coach K. "He’s got really good anticipation and he talks, which is the lifeblood of team defense. There isn’t anything I asked of him that he couldn’t do."
Ramping up his impact in the leadership department has been Harden’s other big focus. Last summer, during the FIBA Basketball World Cup, Krzyzewski appointed Harden one of his captains, leaning on him all summer for input. He’d give Coach K daily updates on the team’s overall mood, whether they should practice and their fears after Paul George’s devastating injury.
"I’d always check the pulse of the team through James," says Krzyzewski. It was an invaluable experience for Harden’s evolution into the leader of a contender. In practices, Harden is consistently the most vocal Rocket but admits he’s still getting a handle on the leadership role.
After a November win against the Mavericks, Harden stunned the crowd when he ran over to the scorer's table and grabbed the public address microphone. "We need your support! We need you!" Harden implored fans with a desperate sense of urgency. "We need it! We need it!"
As Harden raced off the floor, the packed house rose to give him a standing ovation.
James Harden was the leader of an injury depleted Team USA that he led to the gold at the 2014 FIBA world Basketball tournament.
Chapter 5. From Compton to the NBA
In August 2003, the boy whose name no one knew walked into sixth-period gym at Artesia High School in Lakewood, California, eight miles from his Compton neighborhood. His mother sent him there—not Dominguez High, which produced NBA champions Tyson Chandler and Tayshaun Prince—because it was safer and had a more rigid curriculum.
The 6'1", doe-eyed, pudgy kid was shy around strangers. He planned to go out for basketball in the fall. When his high school coach, Scott Pera, saw him hoist his slow-motion set shot with the other freshmen, he didn’t see anything special.
"He wasn’t James Harden then," remembers Pera. "He wasn’t that great. He was just another kid. By no means did we think we had an NBA player on our hands."
As his skill level progressed, he developed a do-it-all deferential style of play that made him the star of a 28-5 team his sophomore season. His first real learning experience came in January of his junior year when Artesia lost its first game—an overtime thriller by one point to Withrow University High (of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the Slam Dunk to the Beach tournament in Delaware).
A reluctant Harden struggled through an eight-shot performance lacking any aggression. As Harden stewed over the loss on the plane ride home, Pera unbuckled his seat belt, went several rows back and sat next to Harden. His message was clear: shoot more.
"In 24 years of coaching, I’ve never had to tell a kid to shoot more," says Pera. "Had to tell a lot of kids to shoot less."
Harden balked for fear it would draw the ire of his teammates. But Pera’s demand was final. Harden averaged 29 points per game the rest of the way, and Artesia never lost again that year. In his final two seasons, he led the powerhouse to a 66-3 record and two California state titles.
He arrived at Arizona State a McDonald’s All-American but very much a work-in-progress. "You wouldn’t call him fat, but he had a high body-fat index when we got him," says Sendek.
Still reluctant to take the spotlight, he’d go through practices without shooting because he didn’t want his teammates to think he was selfish. Soon opposing defenses would go to great lengths to aid his desire not to shoot.
In a February 2009 matchup with Oregon State, the Beavers' game plan was to aggressively trap Harden whenever he had the ball regardless of where he was on the floor. "He could have been at the concession stand and they would have had two guys on him," recalls Sendek, laughing.
Harden managed just three shots, but the Sun Devils won. After the game, Sendek says he began to learn just who James Harden was. "He was as happy as can be," he remembers. "There was no difference in his disposition in the night he went for 40 against UTEP because we won."
It was a story that Sendek relayed to Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who thought Harden’s phlegmatic temperament would fit perfectly next to Durant and Westbrook. Despite a strong predraft showing, Harden received mixed signals from many lottery teams. A last-minute midnight workout with Minnesota the night before the draft only served to confuse things.
Pera skipped his fifth wedding anniversary to fly to New York to be with James and his mother in the green room the night of the NBA draft. There was nervous tension at the table, and few words were spoken.
"I was more nervous than on my wedding night," says Pera. His mom cried when the Thunder took him with the third pick. The quiet kid’s face never changed.