With Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings dominating the headlines, it’s easy to see how James Harden’s name has gotten lost in the shuffle. While the Thunder rookie is far from being labeled “a bust”, there’s no doubt people are questioning OKC’s decision to draft Harden (the third overall pick) over Evans (fourth) and Jennings (10th).
True, Harden has been a little slower out of the gates than some of his rookie peers, but he’s starting to show glimpses of his potential as of late. He has scored double digits in five of the Thunder’s last six contests and his December stats (11.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.5 apg) have improved from his numbers in November (9.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.4 apg). Harden is fourth on the Thunder in scoring (10 ppg) and the leading scorer off the bench. He’s been a solid addition to a 15-14 Oklahoma City team that was a New Jersey Nets-esque 3-26 just a calendar year ago.
Although Harden’s play has improved, there’s no denying his rookie season has been a roller-coaster ride. It took him 11 games to score double digits and after he put together five straight games of scoring double figures in November, he went three straight games where he scored under double digits. After scoring a career-high 26 points, 9 rebounds (also a career high) and 5 assists in a win against the Warriors back on Dec. 7, he followed it up with a 6-point (on 2-11) performance against the Grizzlies. For the season, Harden is shooting just 39.7 percent from the field.
Despite his ups and downs, the Thunder have not second guessed their decision to draft Harden. Teammates and coaches have praised Harden’s unselfishness. Though, he is technically a shooting guard, Harden has dished out six or more assists on four occasions.
“You can never have enough unselfish playmakers,” coach Scott Brooks told the East Valley Tribune last week. “The thing I like about him is he’s unselfish but he can do a lot of things scoring-wise. Some guys are unselfish because they can’t be selfish. They can’t score. They can’t make plays. James can, but he puts his teammates first.”
He has also shown his commitment to the team by showing up to training camp 15 pounds lighter than his Arizona State days. Harden has also tried to prove that he’s not just a three-point threat. He’s getting to the line over three times per game and has been shooting more mid-range jump shots. Brooks has also been using Harden more and more down the stretch. In a game against the Suns last week, Harden played the entire fourth quarter and logged 14 points (7-7 FT) in the Thunder’s 117-113 win over Phoenix.
While his stats aren’t as high as several other rookies, the Thunder are satisfied with Harden’s development. It’s hard to compare him to Evans or Jennings, because his role is to play off of Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, not be the go-to guy like those other rookies. When Harden improves his shooting percentages, becomes more consistent and gets better defensively, he could be OKC’s X-factor in their push for the last playoff spot.