Just eight games into his sophomore season, James Harden of Arizona State has already made something of a career out of being overlooked.
As a freshman he had the misfortune of playing in a Pac-10 Conference that had two highly anticipated first-year players in UCLA's Kevin Love and USC's O.J. Mayo. Both players are now gone, of course, taken in the first five picks of last summer's NBA draft. That doesn't mean Harden is at last getting the pub he deserves, however. I see three additional factors at work here.
One, Harden happens to play for a team that, as is par for coach Herb Sendek's course, prefers a slow pace. Not Washington State-slow, it's true, but still slower than anyone else in the Pac-10 last year. Personally I don't have a problem with the deliberate approach and, even if I did, Georgetown in 2007 proved beyond doubt that you can ride this style to the Final Four. Still, it is true that a slow pace muffles hype in a couple of pernicious ways. Not only does it inhibit the manufacture of highlight-reel material, it also artificially depresses a player's per-game stats, those quaint numeric relics from a bygone era that, sadly, too many hoops pundits still actually use.
Two, Harden plays in the Pac-10, the last holdout against ESPN among the nation's major basketball conferences. Let's be honest: someday in the not too distant future, the Worldwide Leader will swallow the Pac-10 too. Bristol is to sports programming roughly what Bentonville, Arkansas, is to retail. Resistance is futile.
In the meantime, however, the Pac-10's doomed Finland-in-1940-style resistance means its teams and its players fall into something of a media oubliette every January, one from which they don't really emerge until March. UCLA is grandfathered in annually when it comes to hype, of course, but it's simply more difficult for the hoops nation as a whole to register what's new and emergent out there in the Pac-10, more difficult because said nation can't see it themselves.
Like they can see Stephen Curry. Speaking of whom, meet factor number three: James Harden just isn't going to be the most talked about high-scoring guard in the country this year. It's simply not going to happen. After all, Curry's averaging 31 points a game and Harden is scoring "just" 25 a game.
True, but let's go back to the point about slow pace for a moment. Curry plays 34 minutes a game for a Davidson team that averages 74 possessions per 40 minutes. Harden plays 33 minutes a game for a team that averages 65 trips per 40. Impress your friends: when comparing these two players according to archaic metrics like (shudder) "points per game," adjust Harden upward.
Better yet, ditch the archaic metrics entirely….
Harden and Curry
(through games of December 10)
%Shots 3FG pct. 2FG pct. FT pct. FTM/FGA 100 poss. Reb. Pct.
Harden 34.4 50.0 61.6 81.1 .550 8.0 18.8
Curry 36.3 37.8 57.0 87.3 .327 10.8 6.3
Both players occupy outrageously extreme diva-sized roles in their respective offenses, taking between 34 and 36 percent of their team's shots while they're in the game. (For comparison's sake, Mayo took 34 percent of USC's shots during his minutes last year.) In the first few games of this season, however, Harden has been vastly more efficient in his scoring than Curry has. That's no particular mark against Curry, mind you. It's just that Harden's been more efficient than any mere mortal, hitting half his threes and an equally absurd 62 percent of his twos.
Curry would appear to be the better free throw shooter, but Harden actually gets to the line far more often and indeed uses free throws as a Hansbrough-style offensive weapon much more effectively. Most impressively (and, ideally, most fatefully for their draft prospects), both players have shown they can not only create opportunities for teammates but also seize those opportunities and translate them into points. Harden records eight assists for every 100 offensive possessions he plays; Curry records 11. Those numbers testify to uncommon reserves of effective selflessness from two allegedly "pure" scorers.
Where Harden really achieves a different dimension, though, is on the boards. Granted he's played just eight games this year, but in that short span he's personally hauled in 19 percent of opponents' misses during his minutes on the floor. That puts him on a level with what a putative rebounding beast like Connecticut's Jeff Adrien achieved last year.
As for Curry, my intent here is not to find fault with his rebounding. On the contrary, hitting the boards is simply not in his job description and, anyway, his team seems to be doing pretty well without his efforts in that direction.
Also note that the one thing that doesn't show up in my handy table is steals. Both players are very good at recording them but Curry is really outstanding in this department. He is clearly more than a shooter and he obviously merits the close scrutiny of the "next level," baby face and body type be damned.
For a while now I've sensed, or maybe just hoped, that the decades-old hoops nomenclature that features musty terms like "point guard" and "shooting guard" is at long last about to collapse Blagojevich-style, riven by its own internal contradictions. James Harden could be the player who finally demonstrates just how inadequate these terms really are. What do you call a "shooting guard" who actually dishes assists, crashes the glass, and is equally comfortable scoring with a three, a free throw or a dunk?
So, sure, you may have trouble catching his games, and his per-game stats won't always measure up. Never mind. Harden's profile screams "NBA." If he sustains anywhere near this level of play for the rest of the season, he will be one of the first (and I mean one of the very first) players shaking David Stern's hand next June.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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