The first thing you notice about James Harden is the beard. Because his beard has grown so long he’s starting to resemble Abe Lincoln, Harden looks older than a 20-year-old NBA rookie.
Scott Pera, having coached the 6-foot-5 shooting guard in high school and at Arizona State, was asked if Harden grew it to hide a baby face.
"I’ll protect him on that,” Pera said, laughing. "But you might be on to something. That’s all I’m going to say.”
It was a beard-on-beard matchup that’s been the highlight for Harden, who was selected as one of nine rookies for tonight’s Rookie Challenge at American Airlines Center.
In a recent 100-99 loss to the Cavaliers, a game in which the Thunder nearly upset the league’s top team in their house, Harden was assigned to guard reigning MVP LeBron James for a couple of key possessions in the fourth quarter.
"He was really proud of that,” Pera said. "It shows they have confidence in him, that he’s improving. They see what we’ve seen over the years; that James will put in the work to improve. The fact they’re trusting him a little more defensively shows he’s making progress.”
Coach Scott Brooks said the organization was confident Harden could shoot, was an underrated passer and had a high basketball IQ. The big question was whether Harden could hold his own defensively after playing nothing but zone at ASU.
"It was definitely a big adjustment going (man-to-man) against the best players in the world,” Harden said. "That’s always tough. It took me some time to learn. Letting me guard guys like LeBron and (Atlanta All-Star) Joe Johnson shows they have more confidence in me.”
Harden is best known for his dagger 3-pointers, which were on display in a win over Portland on Tuesday night. Harden scored all 13 of his points early in the fourth quarter to help the Thunder post their sixth consecutive win to improve to 30-21 at the All-Star break.
The No. 3 selection in last year’s draft, Harden ranks seventh among rookies in scoring (9.8), fifth in steals (1.0) and ninth in assists (2.0).
One of ASU coach Herb Sendek’s favorite lines is "be an everyday guy.” Pera said Harden losing 15 pounds after the season was yet another sign he would do whatever it took to succeed in the NBA.
"I can tell he’s a lot more comfortable now, that he not only knows he can play in the league but can be pretty good,” Pera said.