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James Harden, Sixth Man, Superfly, Game Changer

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James Harden, the third year shooting guard that the Thunder drafted 3rd overall, is having a breakout season. A simple perusal of his statistics shows us that as he has been given more minutes, his overall production has grown along with it. Harden now averages about 32 minutes a game (starter minutes) and has seen his point production increase to almost 17 ppg, his rebounds to over 4 per game, and his assists to 3.5 per game. These are simply the numbers. Based on that alone, Harden would seem to be a high draft player who is growing at a normal production level.

So why is the NBA going crazy in love for the bearded one?

We have to go waaaaay back to last season to understand.

The very first thing I wrote for WTLC was a little post on the enigma that is the idea of James Harden.

The Curious Case of James Harden

Harden had a decent if inconsistent rookie season, had a few big moments in his first playoff series against the Lakers, and suddenly expectations for him skyrocketed. The Thunder were the team of the near/now, Kevin Durant was the new face of the league, and here they were with another amazing young draftee that appeared to round out this young nucleus.

But then Harden struggled. In fact, he struggled for the first half of the season. Games that appeared to be breakout moments were followed by games where he would all but vanish. He looked lost on offense, was soft on defense, and NBA people from the highest perches began to wonder if Harden was going to be the draft bust that wrecked the Thunder's ascent.

Interesting how things change.

When the Thunder traded Jeff Green to Boston in order to acquire Kendrick Perkins, Brooks reportedly went to Harden and said, "you're the guy now who is going to run the 2nd unit." And just like that, Harden finally knew what he was supposed to do. No more floating around the perimeter, no more hesitant drives to the rim. Harden's job was now to help his backcourt mate Eric Maynor run the 2nd unit and produce offense while the two stars were getting a breather. He developed great rapport with Maynor and Nick Collison, perfecting multi-faceted pick and roll plays that either allowed Harden to swoop in for layups or for Collison to roll to the rim unfettered for the jam. By the time last season's playoffs rolled around, Harden was the team's secret weapon that nobody had a game plan for, and the Thunder used Harden's services to make it to the Western Conference Finals.

This season, Harden has picked up where he left off, and even as a sixth man actually generated some interest in being elected to the All-Star game. Fans and analysts alike are taking notice as to what he brings to the table. From a statistical standpoint, what Harden does better than most is play the percentages. He rarely takes a bad shot, knows how to generate offense even if he isn't shooting well, and it seems like when you look at his box score mid-game, he's got double figures in points even though he has only attempted a single shot.

Harden's game is remarkably simple in that he works within an economy of motion and rarely plays above the rim like his teammates Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka do. Says Thunder GM Sam Presti:

"James is somewhat of an artist for our team...He sees things a little bit differently. It's almost as if he's a right-brained player. He's an abstract thinker on the court -- he's not simply connecting the dots, but he's seeing things and that gives us a different dimension."

In other words, Harden is the perfect compliment to Durant's effortless offensive genius and Westbrook's bat-out-of-hell aggression. He is the line between the yin and the yang.

James Harden is a game changer for a new millennium, and he makes it work by playing a game that the old school NBA would be proud of.