Like most years in recent memory, the NBA’s best sixth man this year is a crafty left-hander with sky high shooting percentages. Only this year his name isn’t Manu or Lamar. It’s twenty-two year old James Harden, who has been playing out of his mind so far this season. Indeed, he is not only the top candidate for the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year Award, but he is also one of the primary reasons for the Thunder’s early success.
Before the NBA
Harden was a real stat stuffer in college. He put up huge numbers as a freshman, but fell somewhat under the radar. Part of this was because Harden’s Sun Devils were only a .500 team in conference play. To be fair, the Pac-10 was very strong that season, and produced 5 lottery picks (3 of which were drafted in the top 5 overall). The other part was because Harden was overshadowed by perhaps the conference’s best freshman ever, Kevin Love. Regardless, Erich Doerr, who has done a considerable amount of college basketball analysis for this site, observed the following after Harden’s freshman season:
“SG James Harden of Arizona State shows a lot of statistical promise, though his numbers fade a bit when focusing on tougher competition. Harden would likely catch a lot more attention if Arizona State picked up the pace and allowed him to compile comparable raw stats to grab attention.”
Harden’s numbers declined noticeably his sophomore season, but no one noticed because he improved with regard to everyone’s favorite stat, points per game. Still, Win Score numbers favored Harden, and Doerr predicted him to be one of the best rookies in the 2008-09 NBA season.
From good to great
Harden was an above average player his rookie season. Since then, like most young Thunders, his production has increased relatively steadily. However, during last year’s playoffs, it skyrocketed. In fact, before the finals, Harden was the second most productive player in the playoffs. He was the Thunder’s most productive player for each of the first three rounds; suffice it to say, without Harden, the Zombies might not have made such a deep run. And perhaps not too surprisingly, he has continued to produce at this high level in the current regular season. Let’s take a look at why:
|Player||Harden in ’11||Harden in ’12||Average SG|
|Points per 48||18.6||26.1||20.1|
The numbers tell a simple story: Harden’s production is so high because his shooting is fantastic. This of course has both good and bad implications: it is good that so many of Harden’s shots go in the basket; it could be bad in that he might not be able to sustain this high percentage. Perhaps bad isn’t the right word; the point is that if Harden’s shooting regresses to the mean to some extent, his production might not stay so high. Given how high his effective field goal percentage is, this is very likely to happen. But even without the ridiculous shooting, Harden is a good player. In particular, he is a very good passer and rebounder. He has also generally been good at creating possessions and taking care of the basketball, though his steals and turnovers have been worse than usual this year.
Impact on the Thunder and Future Implications
Because the Beard has been so productive this season, the impact he has had on his team is undeniable. Aside from Kevin Durant, no Thunder player has had a more positive impact on wins than James Harden. Including Durant, Harden has been the most productive per-minute player that has logged meaningful minutes on the team. Indeed, if Harden’s minutes were replaced with an average player (or Daequan Cook), the Thunders would be expected to win about two fewer games at this point in the young season.
Though he probably won’t sustain the ridiculous shooting numbers he currently has, Harden will likely remain a very productive player. And since he is only 22 (and still three years from his prime), things are looking very good for his career. Stat-ignoring Kobe lovers aside, it is hard to argue that Dwyane Wade isn’t the best shooting guard in the league right now (Editor’s note: with Wade’s injury which has also lowered his playing time it turns out right now Harden is arguably about as good as Wade and Kobe put together). But Wade is on the wrong side of 30, and we know what that means: sooner or later, his production will begin to fall. When it does, Harden will be there, waiting to take the crown (or at least start on his own team)