- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The least-talked-about All-American in college basketball couldn't dunk as a high school freshman.
In fact, Arizona State's James Harden couldn't do much of anything on the court, as he was plagued by a boyhood battle with asthma and an extra layer of baby fat.
"He was spot shooter who stood in the corner," joked Sun Devils point guard Derek Glasser, who was Harden's teammate at Artesia High School in Los Angeles.
But Arizona State assistant Scott Pera, who coached Glasser and Harden in high school, saw something special in the raw 15-year-old.
"He was not a great athlete," Pera said. "The best way to put it is to say he didn't come to me as a ninth-grader dunking and running a 4.4. He was a little soft. But he had good instincts."
Pera saw so much potential in Harden that he believed the pudgy swingman could one day become a very good college player. Before Harden's sophomore season at Artesia, Pera showed him a list of the top high school underclassmen in Southern California, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Harden's name wasn't on the list.
"My point was this list didn't matter," Pera said. "It was the list they were going to have in June 2009 or June 2010, when [NBA teams] started picking guys to get paid. I told him, 'Each year, we'll start checking off names and see whey they're all at and where you're at.'"
Four years later, Pera can't recall many of the names that were on the newspaper's list.
"They were a lot of good players, but none of them are at the level where James is now," Pera said. "He's passed that list by."
Harden has already been called Arizona State's most famous lefty since golfer Phil Mickelson. Through three games this season, Harden is averaging 25 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5 assists. He scored 33 points on 12-for-19 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds in a 61-40 victory over Pepperdine on Sunday.
The No. 14 Sun Devils play Charlotte in the 76 Classic at Anaheim Convention Center on Thanksgiving Day.
Last year, Harden, who turned 19 in late August, was named All-Pac-10 as a freshman after setting an Arizona State freshman record with 16 20-point games. This season, Harden was named a second-team All-American by ESPN.com and is considered one of the top prospects for next spring's NBA draft.
But the sophomore doesn't look or act like one of the country's best players. He doesn't have a tattoo on his body and the soft-spoken sophomore admits to being somewhat of a momma's boy. His mother, Monja, often makes the five-hour drive from Los Angeles to Tempe to see her son play and recently bought a second home in the area.
"James never seeks or sought out attention by his play or his personality," Pera said. "He just wants to go out and do his thing and win games. I've told him over the years, 'You keep playing and doing your thing, recognition will come.' I told him it wouldn't happen as early, but that's a good thing. When you're getting that attention when you're 16 or 17, it's hard. Now that he's 19, it's a little easier because he's matured."
Harden, who led Artesia High to consecutive state championships and was named a 2007 McDonald's All-American, was recruited by more established Pac-10 programs such as UCLA, USC and Washington, along with dozens of other top programs around the country.
But the 6-foot-5 guard said he wanted to attend a college where he could establish his own legacy. So he followed Pera and Glasser to Arizona State, despite the fact that the Sun Devils have played in the NCAA tournament only three times since 1981 and have never won a Pac-10 championship in 30 seasons in the league.
"It was a lot different," Harden said. "All the other McDonald's All-Americans were going to big-name schools like North Carolina, Texas and Duke. A lot of people were asking me, 'Why would you go to Arizona State?' Now they see why I came here."
Cynics suggested Pera was the only reason Harden chose to play for the Sun Devils. Shortly after Herb Sendek left NC State to replace Rob Evans at Arizona State after the 2005-06 season, he hired Pera as director of basketball operations. Pera, who attended Penn State, won high school state championships in his native Pennsylvania and then at Artesia High.
Pera was hired at Arizona State in June 2006. Harden committed to play at Arizona State about two months later.
"Scott had the distinction of winning state championships back in Pennsylvania and California," Sendek said. "He had already established himself as being a great coach before James came along. You try to hire the best staff you can. You look at the people we've hired in the past, and they've gone on to do great things as much as anyone else, whether they came from the high school or college ranks. You just try to get the most talented people who have a great passion for the game. Should someone be ostracized or excluded because they have great players? That's equally unfair."
"Herb kind of took a risk," Pera said. "James kept his word to me. It was certainly a compliment that James said he'd follow me, but I didn't hold a gun to his head, either. It doesn't bother me. I'm not naive enough to think I was hired solely on my coaching résumé. I've won state titles in two states. I coached with two different kinds of kids in two different styles of basketball. It doesn't bother me. It's worked out great. To be around Derek and James for this amount of time, it's been a blessing."
Harden has proved to be a blessing for the Sun Devils. As a freshman, he nearly led Arizona State to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2003, as the Sun Devils finished 21-13 and swept both games against rival Arizona. But the Sun Devils were snubbed when NCAA tournament at-large berths were awarded and headed instead to the NIT, where they won two games.
"Getting to the NCAA tournament is definitely the goal for us because last year we were just short," Harden said. "We were young last year and didn't know how to close out games. This year is different. There are no excuses. We want to push it until the wheels come off."
Harden, who was the youngest freshman in the Pac-10 last season, averaged 17.8 points and led the league with 73 steals. Still, he spent much of the season overshadowed by the league's more heralded freshmen, such as UCLA's Kevin Love and USC's O.J. Mayo.
"I've never had much notoriety," Harden said. "It's fine with me. My main focus is just to keep working hard every day to make myself and my teammates better. I'm always the underrated guy. That's fine."
Harden's teammates say his most underrated skill is his ability to pass and find open teammates. He attempted more than 15 shots in only five games last season, averaging just fewer than 11 field goal attempts per game. Mayo took more than 16 shots per game last season, and All-America guard Stephen Curry of Davidson jacked up more than 18 shots per game.
"I think James is more team-oriented," Arizona State forward Jeff Pendergraph said. "Just watching him play, he can get to the basket whenever he wants. Watching other teams play, guys will put up shots just to get baskets. But James is always looking for the next open guy because he knows three or four guys are going to try to block his penetration."
At times, the Sun Devils have encouraged Harden to shoot more often.
"There were some games last year where I'd walk up to him and say, 'James, it's your time,'" Glasser said. "He'd just nod his head and score eight straight points. We don't have to say anything to him now. That's what's so special about him. I'm not taking anything away from Stephen Curry, he's a great player. But he scored 44 points and took 30 shots. James takes nine shots and consistently scores 25 points. He just knows how to put the basketball in the hole."
And the rest of the country is starting to notice Harden's talents, too.
"He is a team-first guy," Sendek said. "He's a very unselfish player and has a great basketball IQ. He's just a guy that makes great decisions. You could never tell by his body language whether he's scored 32 points or the other team is double-teaming him and he's passing to his teammates first. He has a great feel for the game. He knows what to do. Believe me -- he'll shoot and he'll score."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.