James Harden is the rare 24-year-old who’s already the best player at his position. He’s a foundational franchise leader, a fearless player and a relentless scorer.
When mistakes are made, they’re almost always Harden’s own doing, whether he’s driving to the rim and barreling over a stationary defender, or whipping a bullet pass at an unsuspecting teammate and then watching the ball roll out of bounds.
His defensive woes are correctable, existing more for a lack of effort and energy than knowledge of scheme and design. He knows where he's supposed to be, and he’s a smart player who should get better on that end as his offensive strains loosen up.
What made his first season as a Rocket so special was his ability to assume so much offensive responsibility while remaining extremely efficient. He posted a true shooting percentage of 60.0 percent (14th highest in the league), while his usage percentage was an even 29 percent (ninth highest in the league).
Only three guards in NBA history who appeared in at least 78 games were as high in both categories: Kevin Martin, six-time All-Star Walter Davis and Michael Jordan. Jordan and Harden are the only two to score at least 2,000 points. Making Harden's achievement even more remarkable was the stage in his career when he did it (23).
Harden is already a buzz saw through the league’s thickest defenses, with passing ability and court awareness that make him impossible to guard as he's knifing toward the rim.
When he was the best sixth man in basketball, Harden was often compared to Manu Ginobili. But last season he vaulted into a new tier. Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, two of the best shooting guards ever, are now better measurements.
Despite what Bryant and Wade might say, they’re both no longer as athletic or consistent on both ends of the floor as they used to be. Wade turns 32 in January and will likely battle knee troubles the rest of his career, while Bryant is 35 and currently has no timetable for a return to action after suffering a devastating tear to his Achilles six months ago.
Evaluating Harden by pitting his skill and production against those two in the present day wouldn’t be insightful. But doing so when Bryant and Wade were in their early 20s should paint a more accurate picture in predicting Harden's future.
Below are some stats from each player when they were 23 years old.
Wade: Second season as a full-time starter, 77 games, 2,974 minutes, 24.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 6.8 APG, 23.1 PER, 30.9 usage percentage, 56.1 true shooting percentage, All-Star, All-NBA second team, All-Defensive second team.
Bryant: Fourth season as a full-time starter, 80 games, 3,063 minutes, 25.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.5 APG, 23.2 PER, 30.4 usage percentage, 54.4 true shooting percentage, All-Star, All-NBA first team, All-Defensive second team.
Harden: First season as a full-time starter, 78 games, 2,985 minutes, 25.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 5.8 APG, 23.0 PER, 29.0 usage percentage, 60.0 true shooting percentage, All-Star, All-NBA third team.
At 24, Wade and Bryant both had Shaquille O’Neal as a teammate. Now it’s Harden’s turn to have a complementary Hall of Fame-caliber big man by his side. The addition of Dwight Howard is significant because even though Harden already has one NBA Finals appearance under his belt, it occurred when he might have been the third- or fourth-best player on his team.
A healthy Howard assures Houston (and Harden) will be contending for a title for the next five years. And, valid or not, great players can make 15 straight All-Star teams, but if they aren’t elevating their team to a championship or two, history won’t think of them as highly.
Earlier, I wrote the only thing holding Harden back from bursting through his own ceiling was himself. But that’s not entirely true. In order for him to surpass his current expectations, he’ll need the right pieces around him and a sprinkle of luck in the playoffs—elements every legend in basketball history has needed.
Team-related struggles and injuries are variables he'll have to out-maneuver, but if both fall into place, there's no reason to think that 10 years from now we won't view Harden as we do Wade and Bryant today.