Old-school Harden will sneak up on you
James Harden is looking more and more like a top-5 pick with impressive workouts
LOS ANGELES -- Our draft workout tour moves from a player, Hasheem Thabeet, with some of the best physical tools in the draft to another player working out in L.A., James Harden, with some of the best mental tools there are.
There's only one phrase that seems to capture the essence of Harden -- "old school."
The reigning Pac-10 player of the year won't necessarily wow you with his athleticism. He's not the tallest guard at his position. He doesn't have a "SportsCenter" highlight reel. But he's sneaky.
You'll be watching a game with Harden and before you know it, he has 30 points and you struggle to recall how he did it. Harden has a way about him that's hard to categorize. He's the old guy at the YMCA that no one wants to pick, but ends up dominating all the young guys at both ends of the floor.
No one can dispute Harden's numbers at ASU his first two years. He was, hands down, the best 2-guard in the country last season. But will his game translate to the NBA? Will he show well in workouts?
I traveled to the Hanger Athletics Exchange (HAX) -- an old airplane hanger next to LAX that's been converted into five full basketball courts -- to get a peek at Harden as he prepares for the upcoming draft.
Harden has been working there for several weeks, spending much of the time with A.T.T.A.C.K. Athletics training guru Tim Grover when Grover was in L.A. working out Kobe Bryant.
He's been joined along the way by his mother, Monja, who cheers and smiles like any proud parent would.
"I'm just so proud of James," she says, smiling from a few seats at the baseline of the basket. "He's always been such a special boy."
So, when did she know he was going to be a NBA player?
"When he was born," she says with a laugh.
Harden finishes a drill and comes up to us as we chat.
"I'm asking your mom to give me all of your dirt," I say jokingly.
Harden stops and cocks his head at his mother. "What are you telling him mom? He's a reporter."
She laughs and says, "No dirt to tell. No dirt to tell."
That's the consensus around the league about Harden.
"He's one of those kids that's a throwback from a different era," one NBA GM said. "His background came back as clean as it gets. His coach and teammates rave about him. He's all business on and off the court."
On the court, three things really stand out about Harden in the workout I saw.
First, he seems to have lost 10 to 15 pounds since we saw him last in the NCAA tournament. His face is thinner, his abs more chiseled. The improved physique and conditioning have given him an added quickness and explosiveness that you didn't always see at Arizona State.
"He reminds me a little of Brandon Roy," another NBA executive said. "When you watched him in college, he didn't look like an elite athlete because he was using his knowledge of the game, not his athleticism, to get by people. Then he gets to the combine and does really well in all of the athletic testing and everyone was wowed.
"Harden's like that. He's got sneaky athleticism."
He also has two other physical advantages that should help in the pros. While he's at the average height for 2-guards in the league (6-foot-5 ½ in shoes, according to his trainer) he has a 6-foot-11 wingspan that allows him to wreak havoc in the lane and a thick base that gives him the ability to post up smaller, weaker guards in the paint.
Second, Harden is showing a marked improvement in his 3-point shooting. While Harden would have been categorized as a good shooter already, he wasn't a dead-eye, either -- especially late in the season. You can see that he's been working on increasing his range and accuracy, and in the workout I saw, he was hitting just about everything he threw up there.
His form looks great and his release is quick. Over time he's going to need to continue to develop that skill. Since he doesn't have a super quick first step, he's going to need defenders to play him close on the perimeter to use his creativity to get to the rim.
Finally, Harden seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder. After absolutely dominating the first half of his sophomore season, his play began to fall off in Pac-10 play. Teams were double- and triple-teaming him and at times he grew passive and would mentally fall out of games.
His struggles were compounded with a below-average (for Harden) performance in the NCAA tournament that had a number of NBA executives re-asking questions about his ability to dominate at the next level.
Harden took those criticisms to heart. "I know that when I go to the NBA, guys will be coming for you. That's why I'm working so hard right now. It gives you motivation to get better."
While there are a few teams that still are asking questions about Harden as a top-five pick, most of the executives I spoke with are convinced he's the real deal.
"Remember when everyone got down on Eric Gordon last year when his play slipped at the end of the season?" one NBA executive said. "All of the sudden people were acting like he couldn't play. Then he has a great rookie season and people forget about the problems."
We've had Harden ranked in the Top 5 of our Top 100 all year and after watching him work out, I think there's little chance he falls out of it. He's going to be more impressive than many would think in workouts. His slimmed-down physique and improved explosiveness should quiet any doubters. I think Oklahoma City is the team where he fits the best, but I also could see him on the Wizards in a backcourt with Gilbert Arenas. It's hard to believe he slips past both of those teams, unless they are picking No. 1 and No. 2.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.