USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo was just answering a question, but in the process he may have given this team both guidance and a slick slogan.
Don't fear the beard—follow it.
Those are my words, not his, but what he actually said about starting swingman James Harden wasn't too much different.
Right now, I think I would look to Harden as that leader. Harden is kind of a natural leader and he seems to be willing to accept that role. And you can just kind of feel it and sense. He’s the one.
... I don’t know if he’s been waiting [to lead]. It’s evolved. He came in as a pretty high draft pick. Got off to a great start in Oklahoma City. Whether he was disappointed or surprised by what transpired, he found himself in another uniform and that’s part of life in pro sports and the NBA, and I think he’s adjusted to that and his numbers get bigger and he’s being recognized more and more as the player he is. And this is a great platform for him to come out as a leader.
In some ways, Harden would be an obvious choice.
He is the only player on the roster to have earned All-NBA first-team honors last season. Harden is also one of the two players left from the 2012 Olympic gold medalists, along with Anthony Davis.
Then again, Colangelo may have had to put some thought into this. There are areas that could have given him some hesitations about handing over the keys to the bearded baller.
"Harden is only 25 years old, and he has only been a starter in the NBA for the past two seasons," noted CBS Sports' James Herbert. "He's not known as a big rah-rah guy, and his lackadaisical defense has attracted so much attention over the past few months that his offensive brilliance has become underrated."
Add Harden's foot-in-mouth comments from earlier this summer—he called himself and Dwight Howard the Houston Rockets "cornerstones" and dubbed the rest of his teammates "role players or pieces that complete our team," via Joaquin Henson of The Philippine Star—and he might seem as more of an awkward choice than an obvious one.
However, Colangelo's hand may have been forced.
This team was supposed to be following the leads of Kevin Durant and Kevin Love, but both withdrew from the roster earlier this summer. Paul George's two-way play might have put him in the running for a leadership role had a gruesome leg break not ended his run.
Frankly, there weren't any conspicuous leadership candidates left. Anthony Davis is 21 with two years of NBA service on his resume. Derrick Rose is a major question mark after losing all but 10 games to knee injuries the past two seasons. Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry have shown some of the same defensive deficiencies as Harden.
Not to mention that Harden's defense has looked significantly better on Team USA's game film than it did on a certain viral video that pushed his problems under the spotlight. He looks more engaged now, and he says there's a reason for that.
"First of all, you got the top players in the world on your team, so if you’re not focused and locked in on defense, they are going to embarrass you," Harden said, via Lee. “I think our coach has done a phenomenal job of making sure we’re keyed in."
Harden will have the chance to show off his new defensive commitment when he leads Team USA into their FIBA World Cup opener against Finland on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). If he spends major minutes flanked on the perimeter by Curry, Rose and Irving, Harden could find himself accepting the defensive assignments that would have been slotted for Paul George.
With good size (6'5", 220 lbs), strength and quickness, he has the tools to be a plus-defender. Without needing to carry nearly as much of the offensive burden as he does for the Houston Rockets, he has every opportunity to put this natural gifts to work.
Harden's defensive versatility could be tested in the group stages, as Ukraine's 5'11" playmaker Pooh Jeter, Finland's scoring guard Petteri Koponen and New Zealand's sharpshooter Kirk Penney each present their own perimeter problems. In the knockout stage, Australia packs a mean backcourt punch with Matthew Dellavedova and Dante Exum should their path intersect with Team USA's.
By the time a likely championship matchup with Spain comes around, Harden should be ready for his biggest tests in the forms of Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez and Jose Calderon.
If Harden can return to Houston with defense and leadership added to his already versatile skill set, he could serve as a reminder of the positive changes that can come out of this experience.
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