James Harden has been heavily praised by Team USA coach Mike Kryzewski this offseason. He’s also been declared the leader of the team by chairman Jerry Colangelo.
Colangelo said with regards to a team leader, “Right now, I think I would look to Harden as that leader. He is a kind of natural leader and he seems to be willing to accept that role. And you can just kind of feel it and sense (it). He’s the one.”
That’s high praise from a great basketball mind, and the fact that it is based on observation rather than confidence is well worth noting. Harden has grown immensely in his two seasons with the Houston Rockets after serving as a sixth man in Oklahoma City prior to being traded. His self-confidence is supreme, even declaring himself the best player in the world. He clarified those comments by adding, “I think everybody feels that way. Every NBA player…As a basketball player, or any athlete, you got to have confidence, you’ve got to have confidence the whole time.”
The key takeaway from this statement is the last four words “confidence the whole time.” That means confidence at whatever a defense throws against you, whichever lockdown defender has been assigned to cover you that game. Harden has to believe not just that he is better than most of his competition, but all of it. How do you look Kobe Bryant in the eyes during the fourth quarter when you’ve just declared him the best player in the world and better than you?
Fans will remember that following the Boston Celtics’ last title run Paul Pierce made the same declaration. Harden is right, every player has to think that way. While backups and career bench players may not enter the game thinking they are going to destroy their competition, guys like Harden need to know they can and will.
That confidence and ability to lead a team are only going to help Harden take his game to the next level. And this isn’t just about scoring statistics, shooting percentage, or even advanced metrics. It’s about swagger; it’s about knowing you will give your team the chance to win every night and leading your supporting cast to victories.
That isn’t anyone’s job but Harden’s, and he knows it. Even on Team USA, a team hardly bereft of talent, Harden is going to look for his scoring opportunities nearly as often as during the NBA season.
He’s going to find a lot more talent around him, and that will get him even easier looks and more passing options when he penetrates. Anthony Davis, in particular, will benefit from Harden as the only other holdover on the roster.
Harden will also have three supremely talented point guards to take care of the basketball while he’s on the court. Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving are great ball distributors (and scorers in their own rights for that matter), and Harden will find a lot less of those wing threes met by the hands of aggressive defenders.
Harden said he’s just “(Trying) to focus on himself and how (he) can be a better basketball player.” From all indications out of Team USA camp, he’s doing just that. Knowing that he is the leader and elder statesman of a team this talented is going to go a long ways towards further cementing that “best in the world” status in his head.
For as much as the world doesn’t like a guy with an ego, Rockets fans will be glad Harden has a massive one. It gives him the wherewithal to continue to go barreling towards the basket to draw fouls, to take tough contested shots with the shot clock waning; and ultimately, to be the star that will help reel in another stud to Houston to help the Rockets make the final steps towards true contention in the West.
Quote source: Washington Post, Michael Lee