The Evolution of James Harden

One of the keys to the Thunder season is James Harden. Harden’s number significantly increased once Jeff green was traded. Harden and everyone knows he’ll be very key as the number three scorer for the Thunder. Harden is expected to start the season as the sixth man in the rotation. Many experts expect Harden to be starting by season’s end. 

Harden before the trade for his career was averaging just 10.0 points per game. He was shooting just 40.6% from the field and at times was very passive on shooting the ball. Once the trade went through. Harden’s numbers usage across the board. His shooting percentage went up. In fact, Harden’s foul’s decreased in the second half of the season. Harden before the trade had just five 20 point games. After the trade, he had five alone, not including the playoffs.

Harden also was very key in the success for the Thunder in the playoffs. When Harden scored 15 or more points, Oklahoma City was 6-2 in the postseason. Harden averaged 13.0 points per game in the playoffs. While his usage was up, so were his turnovers and fouls per game. His minute usage was up almost 6 minutes a game in the playoffs.

All these stats are just that, stats. However, they’re also an indication of what Harden is worth doing on the court. Harden is going to need to continue his statistical improvement if the Thunder are going to continue to progress in the NBA Playoffs. Harden needs to improve his shot selection selection. In the playoffs, his three point percentage was down as the Thunder relied on Harden much of the time for a big three point shot.

Harden needs to also get better at getting to the rim. According to HoopData.com, Harden rarely got to the rim, most of his shots came from the 15-23 foot range. He could improve his already improved shooting percentage if he continued to attack and get to the rim. While HoopData also shows there is significant improvement at getting to the basket with his free throw attempts up, he also has an increase in shooting the three as well. Once he can learn to balance that, an already good scorer, can become a great threat.

ESPN’s projection for 2011-2012: After posting averages of 13.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 3-pointers in 17 postseason games, Harden is sure to come into the season as one of the top breakout candidates. More important than his numbers in the postseason, the Thunder were at their best when Harden was on the court as the third scoring option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. His playoff numbers were no fluke. In fact, Harden posted 15.8 points with 1.7 3-pointers and 1.2 steals in 28 games after the All-Star break last season. Look for a major bump in minutes in 2011-12, and do not be surprised if Harden is one of the season’s biggest breakouts.

Harden’s defense has also been a little suspect at times. He has a defensive rating of 108* according to basketball-reference.com for his career. However, you can say his usage has caused his defensive rating to go up. It was 104 for his rookie season. He fouled about the same as the previous season. It was a lot higher in the playoffs, averaging almost 3 fouls per game. Then again, look who he had to guard. He took times guarding Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Aaron Afflalo and JR Smith. All four, when on their game, can be deadly sharp shooters.

However, I’m not worried about his defense. I fully expect that to improve. He did well at times guarding the greats of Dewayne Wade and Kobe Bryant. He’ll be able to hold his own as his career progresses. At just 22, he appears to be a rising star. One bugaboo left is his foul rate; while Harden’s activity results in a high rate of steals, only five shooting guards fouled more frequently — making it harder for him to play big minutes. However, he’s going to get better with age, experience. That will come down. He’ll be able to play 30-34 minutes a game.

I know it sounds like I’m down on Harden. I’m really not. as John Hollinger for ESPN has already pointed out. He has the ability to be the league’s break out player of the year. I fully expect that. Pay no mind to that low shooting percentage; Harden was sixth among shooting guards in true shooting percentage. Thanks to the third-best secondary percentage at his position. He likely will get better, too — despite a good-looking stroke he made only 34.5 percent of his 3’s in 2010-11.

Now, I don’t know much about statistical projections, but I could definitely see Harden averaging 15 points per game while shooting around 46% from the field. I expect his free throw attempts to continue to increase and hopefully his three point efficiency will improve. Should be a great season for “The Beard.”



* Defensive Rating (available since the 1977-78 season in the NBA); for players and teams it is points allowed per 100 posessions. This rating was developed by Dean Oliver, author of Basketball on Paper.

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