The future of this franchise will literally hinge upon the development of these three players (you can add on if they acquire a paint-oriented, back-to-the-basket big to that but we’ll go with these three for today).
Now you absolutely would have included Harden’s name on this list a year ago as he was the #3 pick, but Ibaka would have been a mere footnote. And Maynor, well we didn’t even expect him to be on the team once Utah drafted him. And now, well the development of these three could pretty much determine how significant of a contender the Thunder are for the next five-to-ten years depending upon how each turns out.
*Hopefully this won’t tread upon Clark’s engaging series on how each Thunder player can improve for next year since we’ll just be focusing on the rookies and will be more general…and yes, I’m excluding Mullens for what are, I hope, unbelievably obvious reasons
For today, Part I, we’ll be taking a look at the Thunder’s Sixth Man and All-Rookie Second Team member, James Harden.
James Harden – 9.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.05 steals, 40.3 FG%, 37.5% 3PT, 80.8 FT% in 22.9 minutes a game
Playoffs: 7.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 38.7 FG%, 37.5% 3PT, 84.2 FT% in 20 minutes a game
For a rookie shooting guard who only played just under 23 minutes a game, Harden seriously contributed to the Thunder across the board as the team’s Sixth Man, but that’s to be expected of the third overall pick. In fact, you could even argue more is expected of such a high draft pick for a team that had just won only 23 games.
But this team seemed to believe early on that they were more than a 33-35 win team and to his credit, James Harden did his best to fulfill the role that the Thunder coaching staff put him in/needed him to fill for the best of the team. And despite textbook rookie inconsistencies, Harden performed quite well and helped the turnaround that was the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2009-10 NBA season.
There are many who wished Harden would start from about the midway point of the season and others who were fine with Thabo starting as long as Harden received at least 30 minutes a game (myself included in the latter), however the Thunder won 50 games and made the playoffs, so it’s hard to argue with the staff’s decision to use Harden as a key reserve and continue his development more slowly than other rookies.
Due to this slowed pace of development, Harden did not put up gaudy statistics like other fellow rookies because he was not a starter, did not get the necessary minutes to accumulate those stats, and apart from Brandon Jennings, did not play on a team who was out of the playoff race by January and could afford to play a rookie high draft pick and take the learning curve lumps along the way.
Plus, Harden wasn’t always as efficient as some of the rookies who finished ahead of him in the ROY race, as they should have.
Next Stage: Harden has got to become a potent offensive threat every time he touches the ball, either for himself or for other teammates, which he has shown the surprising capability of doing as either a scorer or even a top-shelf playmaker and passer.
Far too often during his rookie season Harden would appear extremely passive and be content to just move the ball along. Or on the flip side, Harden would realize he needed to kick-start the team’s offense and would force his drives and enter the paint out of control and without a plan.
Such is the rookie year.
But the reason for so much optimism with Harden is that despite his inconsistencies and forced drives/shots, Harden played more like a veteran than he did a rookie throughout his inaugural season. His vision, savvy and ability to draw contact and attack the rim when his shot was not falling paint the picture of a player who already gets it and just needs time to adjust his full game to this level of competition. He needs those reps to be able to understand how best to use his considerable talents to maximize his effectiveness in the NBA.
In addition, Harden’s offensive efficiency and overall contributions to a 50-win playoff team were considerable even if you’re unimpressed with his overall numbers in limited playing time.
Of the entire rookie class, James Harden was the only player in the Top 10 in scoring not to play 24+ minutes (or a solid half if you want to look at it another way). He was 8th among rookies in scoring.
Of that same Top 10 in scoring, Harden was 4th in 3PT % (behind Curry, Darren Collison and Wesley Matthews) and took twice as many 3’s a game as Collison and Matthews.
But what hurt Harden the most was his 2 PT % when it comes to overall FG% and that is something he should and absolutely must improve upon, primarily finishing at the basket. Harden has shown the ability to split defenses and find driving lanes, which is a great sign at such an early stage in his career. However once James gets there he must be able to convert at the rim if it is an option or dish the ball off to an attacking teammate if the defense converges on him instead of bullishly trying to score no matter what.
Secondly and most astonishingly, Harden made HUGE strides defensively throughout the season—-and he had to, because boy was he hard to watch those first few weeks when it was painfully obvious that he had never played anything but zone in college.
“Oh, you’ve never played man before. Well here, take a stab at guarding Kobe Bryant, Brandon Roy and the best shooting guards on the planet as your warmup course.”
But you know what, he stuck with it, he watched Thabo and he learned. And then he adapted and executed. Yes, he still has a long way to go to being a lockdown defender. But he has the tools and the obvious desire to make that jump.
The proof? Harden had the 5th highest steals of all rookies by the end of the season, averaging an eye-opening 1.05 steals a game. Not bad for a guy who was considered a defensive weak link, huh?
Bottom line, when it came to contributing, few rookies were as good as James Harden was across the board. Don’t believe me, have a look at this…
8th in scoring, 14th in rebounding, 21st in FG%, 12th in FT%, 9th in 3PT %, 12th in assists, 5th in steals and 12th in blocks (yes, 12th).
But you know what, it doesn’t end there. Despite not starting and only playing 22.9 minutes a game, when it came to Shooting Guards who qualified, James Harden was in the Top 25 in scoring (23rd), Top 20 in rebounding (17th), Top 20 in FT (18th), Top 20 in 3PT% (20th), Top 25 in assists (21st), Top 20 in steals (16th, 3 spots behind Thabo) and Top 20 in blocks (18th).
Yes, there are at least 20 teams in the league that would love to start James Harden at SG next year. In short, there’s not a single category James Harden does not contribute in on some level for this team. And it should only improve in his second year.
Prediction for the Opening Tip – Even though it’s not what I would necessarily prefer, I think James Harden continues in his role as the Thunder’s Sixth Man and scorer off of the bench. But unlike last season, I think Harden will see 30+ minutes and be even more effective offensively in his second year.
I think Harden pours in 15 points a game, snags 4.5 rebounds, dishes out 3.5 assists, grabs 1.25 steals while shooting 45.5 FG%, 40.3% 3PT and maintaining his 80 FT%, making it awfully difficult on Scott Brooks not to insert him into the starting lineup or give him 35-40 minutes a game.
And if this next step does happen for Harden, the Thunder offense has the very real chance at catching up to the defense because that second scorer will open up the floor and give Westbrook actual options for plays and kick-outs, not to mention force the defense to pay respect to Harden and thereby free up Durant for better looks.
Tune in tomorrow for the one, the only, Air Congo…