By: Martin Sumners
When James Harden, the 2012 NBA Sixth Man of the Year was drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder with the third overall pick at the 2009 NBA Draft, he could be considered almost clean shaven in comparison to how he appears now, rocking his celebrated buccaneer beard.
Although ESPN/ABC lead basketball analyst Jeff Van Gundy half-jokingly suggested the honor was superfluous as selecting a best seventh and eighth man, one could imagine the bearded Harden as the superhero Sixth Man from The Avengers. However, without any further details about an alter-ego, we know that he was born in the Los Angeles community of Bellflower, known more for growing great baseball players like Nomar Garciaparra, Trevor Hoffman, and Jeff Kent.
By the summer of 2009, the 6-5, 220 pound product out of Artesia High in nearby Lakewood, California had only played two years at Arizona State, and despite winning player of the year, it was without much fanfare in the then UCLA dominated Pac-10. Harden was mocked by some (include me) as a west coast soft shooting guard. In his highlight reel, he seemed too slow and unorthodox with his lefty shooting stroke. And although Harden had yet to turn 20 when he shook Commissioner David Stern’s hand in the middle of Manhattan, in a league all about projection and potential, his time seemed like it had already passed.
But somewhere along the way, Harden became a throwback figure who can play with cool efficiency and bring the thunder with Thor-like tomahawk dunks. His style may be best described as an “old-man” game like that balding guy at the local Y getting by on guile only to surprise you every so often with an extra gear.
Harden is comfortable shooting from the perimeter or driving, and both with no apparent sense of rush. He uses all the angles like a seasoned pool shark getting his shot off in the most difficult of circumstances. However, as mentioned, don’t be fooled as he will blow by an opponent and finish at the rim with youthful exuberance.
His production has increased every year in the league and this season he averaged 16.8 ppg, 3.7 apg and 4.1 rpg on a .491 shooting percentage. His stellar play has also led to his name being added to the USA Basketball roster that potentially would allow him to play this summer for the Olympic Team.
The votes for the award were already cast when Harden, less than two weeks removed from surviving a villainous elbow from Metta World Peace of the Los Angeles Lakers, single-handedly took control of the decisive Game 4 in the Thunder first-round sweep over the defending champs, Dallas Mavericks. Harden scored 15 points in the fourth quarter to help erase a 13 point deficit affirming that the voters did the right thing and saving the day.