Jerry Colangelo Calls James Harden A “Natural Leader”

There’s precedent for members of Team USA to use their summer with the national program as a springboard to a career season in the NBA. Carmelo Anthony in 2008-2009 and Kevin Durant in 2010-2011 are the most notable examples, and Anthony Davis appears to be next in line. But the void left by this summer’s rash of late departures from USA Basketball – Durant, Paul George (injury), Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge – needs to be filled by more than a single player. And by all accounts heard and seen leading up to the FIBA World Cup, James Harden has taken a major step forward, too.

Defensive deficiencies of the Houston Rockets superstar are well-known. Harden made an effort early in training camp with Team USA to quell concerns that he couldn’t defend at the level coach Mike Krzyzewski demands, and reportedly did just that, showing ability on that end of the floor that’s been wholly absent the last two seasons.

But Durant’s late exit just days after George’s devastating injury meant that more was expected of Harden. After all, he became the only All-NBA First Team honoree playing with USAB this summer once the reigning MVP bowed out in early August. It’s easier for a player to defend when his offensive onus is smaller, and the absence of Durant and George ensured that Harden would assume more playmaking responsibility than he and everyone else initially thought.

Basketball is more layered than offense and defense and exes and os, however, and Team USA found itself lacking more than top-shelf wing talent without Durant and George – the Americans were missing leadership, too. And staying true to the attitude he’s exhibited since the beginning of training camp late last month, Harden has enthusiastically assumed the role of the United States’ on-court leader.

Via Michael Lee of the Washington Post, USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo glowed when discussing Harden’s newfound shepherdship after so much roster turnover:

“Right now, I think I would look to Harden as that leader,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said as his team continues to prepare for the tournament in which the winner earns an automatic berth in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “Harden is kind of a natural leader and he seems to be willing to accept that role. And you can just kind of feel it and sense. He’s the one…”

Colangelo said Harden has been one of the team’s most vocal players and has helped elevate practices with his effort and tenacity.

“I don’t know if he’s been waiting [to lead]. It’s evolved,” Colangelo said. “He came in as a pretty high draft pick. Got off to a great start in Oklahoma City. Whether he was disappointed or surprised by what transpired, he found himself in another uniform and that’s part of life in pro sports and the NBA, and I think he’s adjusted to that and his numbers get bigger and he’s being recognized more and more as the player he is. And this is a great platform for him to come out as a leader.”

Let’s just say none of that sounds like the player we’ve seen with Houston.

Praise aside, Colangelo brings up a fascinating point easily overlooked about the trajectory of Harden’s career. As a 23 year-old sixth man that knew nothing but being his team’s third option, Harden was suddenly thrust into the role of the Rockets’ franchise player. His play in 2012-2013 made that wholesale transition appear seamless, but the ugly effort and chemistry issues that surfaced last season never materialized his first year in Houston. And while that’s a problem, it only becomes a major one if they’re never mended – not if Harden fails to do so in his early to mid 20s.

Not every star can be Durant or Davis, prodigies whose talent is innately matched by their work ethic, competitiveness, and unrelenting zeal for the game. Harden, like Anthony before him, might be the type that develops those traits as he enters his prime. And given Colangelo’s comments, that appears to be the case.

The timeline of Harden’s career was drastically altered when he was traded by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Due to his immediate All-Star play as a Rocket and prior notability with the Thunder, it seems Harden has been around far longer than he has. The guy turned 25 years-old yesterday and is entering his sixth season in 2014-2015. The near consensus criticism of Harden’s game has never been fair, but it’s especially unjust considering his youth as a person and player.

Here’s hoping Harden backs up Colangelo’s plaudits in Spain, and shows the similar growth with Houston come late October.

What do you think?

Follow Jack on Twitter at @ArmstrongWinter.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.