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Scouting James Harden

by Darnell Mayberry Modified: April 12, 2013 at 5:50 pm •  Published: June 30, 2009

Two days before the draft, I recorded the Arizona State game versus UCLA on ESPNU figuring there was a good chance the Thunder would come away with Sun Devils shooting guard James Harden. It’s been a busy week to say the least, so I’m just now getting around to pressing play on my DVR. (One of the best inventions of all time by the way. I’ve got 23 episodes of Martin recorded and all I had to do was set it to record one time. Genius. Oh yeah, James Harden.)

The No. 3 overall pick is impressive.

He has a maturity to his game that’s rarely seen in 19-year-old ballplayers. His court vision is excellent, his decision-making is terrific and his all-around impact is invaluable. It could be that I caught Harden on a great night, a 74-67 home win over the Bruins in which he nearly recorded a triple-double with a team-high 15 points and a career-high 11 assists to go with seven rebounds. But considering the point total was five below Harden’s Pac-10-leading scoring average and he finished with eight turnovers, I’d say his performance was closer to average than great.

But over the course of 40 minutes (through the help of my spectacular DVR’s rewind, slow-mo and pause features), I got a better feel for what exactly Harden can bring to the Thunder next season. Although his game isn’t always pretty — although most of the time it is but in a non-flashy kind of way — he gets the job done.

With that said, here is what I took away from Harden’s performance.

  • Arizona State came out in a match-up zone and stuck with it for the entire game. It’s hard to get a sense of just how good (or bad) a man defender Harden is in this scheme, but what’s clear is the critics who labeled him a bad defender should have their credentials revoked if this is how ASU played most of the season (as Harden said the Sun Devils mainly relied on). Even in the protective defense, Harden showed a sense of defensive grit. He had good footwork, active hands, outstretched arms and kept his head on a swivel. He got his paws on a cross-court pass and nearly came up with a steal on the opening possession.
  • On ASU’s first offensive possession, the 6-foot-5 Harden came and got the ball at the top of the key, gave Alfred Aboya a simple jab step, raised and fired over the 6-foot-9 Bruins forward from a good three feet behind the 3-point line. ASU 3, UCLA 0.
  • Harden showed off his playmaking ability on the very next Sun Devils possession. He read and reacted to a double high ball screen and fed forward Rihards Kuksiks for an open 3.
  • Over the next few minutes Harden shows extreme patience with the ball in his hands. He displays supreme control in his movements and a willingness to always make the extra pass.
  • Five minutes in Harden anticipates a Jrue Holiday pass after the UCLA guard knifes his way into the lane. Harden’s unsuspected presence on the low block forced Aboya to bobble the ball and turn it over. At the other end, Harden then reads his point guard, Derek Glasser, and cuts back door for an easy layup after Glasser dribbles toward him….I learned to backcut when someone dribbles toward me back in the 9th grade. It showed Harden understands the game’s fundamentals.
  • Harden once again found the open man while reading and reacting to the defense’s coverage of a high ball screen. This time his pass led to a deep two as a teammate’s defender sagged off to provide help in the lane on a slashing Jeff Pendergraph.
  • Harden often stood around the perimeter looking content to allow the offensive set to go the entire possession without the ball ever touching his hands. I’m not sure if this is a product of ASU’s system or his lack of aggression. But it illustrated the passiveness for which Harden was often criticized….That trait can only balloon in an offense dominated by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green.
  • In a display of one-on-one ability with six minutes remaining in the first half, Harden got the ball in what was essentially an isolation play on the right wing. He squared up against Josh Shipp, started left, crossed over to his right before going back left and attacking the basket with a nifty floater finish through contact in the lane. It could have easily been an And 1.
  • After Glasser is pick-pocketed on two straight possessions by Darren Collison, Harden shows off his versatility by essentially becoming the point guard. Glasser gives up the ball to Harden before he even crosses the halfcourt line, and Harden then gets a teammate a wide open corner 3-pointer (although he blew the assist with an airball).
  • Harden showed throughout the game that he’s not afraid to get physical. He knows how to use his body to bump the defense off balance and create separation when driving or pulling up for the jumper.
  • He tends to get out of control when going to his right. Two of his turnovers came when going right and he missed an early fastbreak layup when forced to go coast to coast and finish with his right….When he’s under control going to his right it was often a much slower, less effective attack that led to a kick out.
  • Being a lefty is an obvious advantage for him. Defenders seemingly think he’ll finish with his right around the rim and he’ll put it in his left and get a wide open look.
  • He’ll mix it up going for rebounds. But the most impressive thing is he routinely seeks a man to put a body on him when the shot goes up.
  • He’s enough of a scoring threat that he draws the double team coming off a baseline screen on one possession, leaving Pendergrapgh wide open in the paint and staring at the rim for an easy two.
  • After Collison harassed Glasser so much that he had to bring the ball up with his back to the basket, Harden took over at point guard with 12 minutes left to play. On one possession, Harden split the defense, got to the front of the rim and dished a pretty pass to Pendergraph for a reverse layup plus the foul.
  • Harden failed to finish at the rim on two occasions, once with his right hand and once on a finger roll with his left.
  • He’s a solid free throw shooter, making 4-of-6 on this night and 75 percent on the season.
  • Perhaps the thing that stood out most is how he played through a foot injury in the final minutes of a nip-and-tuck game. It showed heart, hunger and a will to win.

The Thunder might have landed a good one.


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by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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