I knew James Harden would be the pick since the draft lottery balls bounced the Thunder the third pick on May 19.
Sold I was that he would be the one putting on an Oklahoma City cap before walking up the steps of the WaMu Theatre at Madison Square Garden, reaching the top of the stage and shaking NBA Commissioner David Stern’s hand while staring out at flashing bulbs.
Then Thunder GM Sam Presti misdirected me with his maneuvers over the past week. First he flew to L.A. to meet with Ricky Rubio last Saturday. Wanted to glance over his problematic contract and parlay with Rubio’s family and representatives. Three days later, word got out the Thunder had hired a Spanish law firm to give that complicated contract a careful once over.
It knocked me off my pivot. I should have held my ground.
Few understood how or why I had reached such a firm conclusion on Harden. My explanation was the same, through tens of radio interviews and tons of talks with editors and co-workers, friends and fans.
“He fits the Thunder way.”
It’s a description that Presti brought with him from Seattle but has taken me two drafts, 82 regular season games and a fourth of an off-season to figure out.
It embodies everything Harden is about.
- Hard work, which he said six times in our eight-minute, three-second teleconference with him tonight; but more importantly he showed the Thunder on June 18 — the day after his workout and the morning of his flight to Memphis — when he voluntarily came back to the practice facility to lift weights and get up some extra shots before heading to his next pre-draft workout with the Grizzlies.
“I feel that if I go in there with the same work ethic that those guys have and just try to contribute in the best way possible that everything will work itself out,” Harden said. “Going in there with the open mindset of just going in to work is something that I’m wanting to do.”
- Team play, which he showed in two seasons at Arizona State and is now fortunate to have that rep precede him.
“I’m not just a one-dimensional player, and that’s what separates me from a lot of players in this draft,” Harden explained when I asked how he will co-exist with three other offensive-oriented young guns. “If they have scorers already I can go in and be a facilitator and help those guys score more. Or if they need me to score a little bit and do whatever it takes that’s what I’ll do. Defend, that’s what I’m willing to learn how to improve on and do a lot more. Handling the ball, if that’s what they need me to do throughout periods of the game that’s what I’ll do as well.”
- A defensive mentality, which Harden is criticized for but eager to develop.
“I think I’m a pretty good defensive player right now because I can think and have long arms and the ability to guard different players,” Harden said when I asked about his ability on that end of the floor. “But I have a long way to go as far as being the stopper that I want to be. And with this great group of young guys and having the mindset that they want to win and stop people on defense is something that I have to learn very quick and something that I’m willing to learn very quick.”
- Unselfishness, which he displayed en route to ranking eighth in the Pac-10 in assists at 4.2 per game to go with his league-leading 20.1-point scoring average. So unselfish is Harden that both his high school and college head coaches have had to plead with the natural scorer to, of all things, shoot.
“That’s why I think Sam Presti and those guys chose me, because I’m a pass-first guy,” Harden said. “They have great scorers over there and so with my ability to pass first and score second, with those great players over there it helps that organization a lot.”
- Character, which is an absolute must-have in Oklahoma City, an organization that won’t tolerate its players names popping up on the police blotter.
“We had a lot of bonding time just getting to know each other, and not just the basketball player but the person off the court,” Harden said of his two-day stay in OKC. “And so it was just a great feeling. I felt comfortable. They felt comfortable with me. And just being honest and being myself was something that I tried to do.”
- Being a great teammate, which can be done in so many ways but rings loudest when you don’t forget about the guys who helped mold you into a top three pick.
“Um, Jeff Pendergraph. He’s a great player,” Harden answered, only half-joking, when I asked him midway through the first round what advice he had for Presti with the 25th pick.
Pendergraph is his former 6-foot-10 teammate who gave blood, sweat and perhaps tears to the Sun Devils’ program for four years. The team’s second-leading scorer did just fine on his own merit, becoming the 31st overall pick, the first selection in the second round.
The Thunder way also includes versatility, a winning attitude, a competitive spirit and the ability to develop individually and collectively with a team, all in the name of the greater good of the culture of the organization.
“We just feel like James Harden is our type of guy,” Presti said, one-minute, 23 seconds after sitting down for his 11 p.m. press conference.
So the next time you wonder why Presti passed on Rubio, the 18-year-old sensation, remember the Thunder way. Remember how Rubio’s buyout raised red flags. Remember how his camp made demands about where the teenager would and would not play and for which teams he would and would not workout with or even visit. Remember Rubio’s father threatening, not one hour after the draft, that Rubio would remain overseas rather than report to Minnesota, the team that took him fifth. Remember that the final decision had much less to do with incumbent point guard Russell Westbrook’s feelings and everything to do with this organization’s feelings on outside noise.
“When you come down to it, you’ve got to make the best decision for your basketball team,” Presti said. “It’s not necessarily a comment on Ricky Rubio, but more a statement about James Harden. We really feel like he’s someone that’s going to add value to our team. He really fits what we’re trying to accomplish and adds a need that we’re looking to address as well.”
Nine minutes, 24 seconds later, Presti elaborated, explaining why he not only chose Harden third but was aggressive in his approach of standing pat instead of sliding down to try to get him lower.
“The most important thing for us is — and this is how we’ve approached the draft in the past — if there’s somebody there that you feel like is a good fit for you and your organization and the core values that you have, then you take them if that’s the person you feel like is the best person, the best player. That’s just our philosophy. It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the overriding one or the correct one.”
It was the philosophy in 2008 with Westbrook. Worked out well most would say.
And in the end, after nearly six weeks of speculation and smokescreens, Presti and the Thunder got their man in 2009.