James Harden of the Houston Rockets is one of the burgeoning young superstars in the NBA, having transitioned in the last few years from sixth man with the Oklahoma City Thunder to team leader and elite scorer with the Rockets. He talked to Bleacher Report about his growth and his experience with Team USA basketball this summer.
Harden, speaking on behalf of his Foot Locker campaign seen above, is featured in this hilarious new commercial with Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen about forgetting the past and having a fresh start. He revealed that it's not just a message in the commercial but something he practices.
Addressing pervasive criticism of his defense, he said, "I hear criticism all the time, but that's for y'all and everybody else to talk about, and I'm not focused on it. I'm focused on myself and how can I be a better basketball player and a better person.
"My entire game (needs a fresh start). My entire game...not worrying about the previous year, but just focusing on the next year and the great things to come.
"Every aspect of my game is always in need of improvement. I'm still young and have a long way to go, so, you know—every aspect—whether it's defensively or whether it's offensively."
This could be taken in two ways: Either he's bristling or not resting on his laurels. Or perhaps it's a blend of both.
When asked which coaches had influenced him the most, though, he grew excited and seemed happy to give them credit.
"There are a few coaches who have influenced me, starting from my high school coach, Scott Pera, who coached me also while I was in college those two years," Harden said.
"Then in Oklahoma City, Rex Kalamian, an assistant coach, did a phenomenal job kind of mentoring me, kind of taking me under his wing during my rookie year at OKC.
"And all the coaches here in Houston are kind of embracing me, kind of helping me into that leadership role and take it to that level."
Generally, those who embrace coaching are genuinely looking to improve and are not ignoring their flaws. Harden might be sensitive to the very fair criticism of his defense, but he's not blowing it off. He sounds legitimately committed to improving.
He also credited his coaches and his teammates with helping him transition from Sixth Man of the Year to the first option with the starters.
"It would probably be hard for anybody to go from a sixth man to a starting and high-level role, but my coaches and teammates have done a great job of helping me throughout that process," said Harden. "It's been difficult at times, and sometimes it's been great. You know, as long as you got teammates who are willing to help you and how you help them, it makes the job a lot easier."
His coaches were working with good clay. He has a natural basketball IQ that lends itself to efficient scoring. Interestingly, his commercial co-star, Barkley, is the only player to score over 25 points on fewer attempts at such a young age, per Basketball-Reference.com. I mentioned this to him and asked him about his efficiency. After joking that he wished he'd known it before so he could have something else to talk about with Barkley, he said:
"That's all off natural instincts. Just basically taking what the defender gives me. I don't try and overthink the game. That's when I start turning the ball over and messing up, so I just try and take whatever the defense gives me and just play off instincts."
"You're bound to get better," Harden said. "Obviously Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] and the other assistant coaches did a great job of coaching us, and we had phenomenal practices.
"Then me, Kevin and Paul put in some extra one-on-ones after practices, so to play against two of the best—not only offensively but defensively—players in the world, so you're bound to get better. You're bound to see your game at another level."
Harden was the player George was chasing down when he broke his leg (caution: injury is gruesome in nature), and he recounted his experience of the tragedy.
"I was going up for the layup, and I was fouled, and I didn't know who it was. And I turned around to help whoever it was up, and I heard the crowd go, 'Whoa!'
"And I looked...and I mean...I just had to walk away. You know, it was tough to kind of watch."
On that subject, I asked him about the ironic contrast of Derrick Rose coming back from a traumatic injury and making highlight plays in the same game where George went down with one. Harden feels both will be back.
"We hadn't seen D-Rose in two years, and so from this past week he looked amazing. You know, he looked like the MVP Derrick Rose. Explosive, very fast, making plays. He looked really good.
"They're strong guys, though. They'll bounce back. Derrick hasn't really been around for two years. People forget about him, but he'll definitely make his mark. And Paul is a strong kid as well, so he'll bounce back."
In spite of George's injury, Harden was decidedly upbeat about Team USA's chances in the FIBA World Cup (though this interview was conducted before Durant announced he was pulling out).
"It's been really good," said Harden. "We had a strong week this past week in camp. You know, obviously (there was) a devastating injury with PG [George], but other than that, it was a great week. The guys looked very good. It's a different game, FIBA, with a different ball and different rules, but we got so many great young and talented guys that we should be pretty good."
It's easy to look at a young player as a finished project, but Harden will be just 25 next year. He has the IQ and willingness to improve in the aspects of his game he needs to; he just needs time.
The willingness to be coached has been there in high school, college, Oklahoma City, Houston and now on Team USA. If Harden utilizes that to develop his defense, he'll join the league's elite players. He's working on both ends of the court, which should be good news for Rockets fans.