James Harden is ready for his close-up. The Arizona State sophomore is hardly obscure; he was named the Pac-10's Player of the Year a week ago, projects as a top-five pick in this June's NBA Draft and was even the subject of a feature by our own John Gasaway earlier this year.
Even that column, however, focused on Harden's relatively low public profile. Because of the Pac-10's limited exposure and the fact that the Sun Devils failed to reach last year's NCAA Tournament, much of the country may not have seen Harden play before Saturday's Pac-10 Tournament championship game. With Arizona State a No. 6 seed this time around, Harden will be impossible to ignore.
Before Thursday rolls around, the timing seemed to be right to put Harden under the Every Play Counts microscope. I'm very familiar with Harden from following the Pac-10, but wanted to take a closer look. I TiVoed Friday's Sun Devils game against the University of Washington, a decision that looked worse in retrospect when I had to review the tape of Arizona State knocking my alma mater out of the Pac-10 Tournament and each of Harden's painful 24 points.
The Huskies did a fine job of defending Harden in two regular-season matchups, limiting him to 34 points and 11-of-28 shooting in sweeping the season series. Taking a cue from how Washington State defended Harden, Lorenzo Romar opened the first game with bigger 6'8" Darnell Gant--nominally his team's starting center--getting the defensive assignment. Gant and 6'6" defensive specialist Justin Holiday split time on Harden.
Even though Harden had a big game Friday, Gant and Holiday were able to keep him in check. I charted Harden's performance by defender, and the vast majority of his damage came against other defenders or when no primary defender was involved in the play.
Defender FGM FGA FTM FTA AST TO PTS POS
Gant 0 2 1 2 1 1 1 4
Holiday 1 2 2 2 2 2 4 5
Dentmon 1 1 2 2 0 0 4 2
Bryan-Am. 1 1 0 0 0 0 3 1
Overton 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1
Pondexter 0 0 2 2 0 0 2 1
Team 4 7 0 1 1 0 10 7
TOTAL 7 13 7 9 4 4 24 21
The numbers show that Gant, in particular, stifled Harden when they were matched up, but he was able to score nine points in five possessions when Gant and Holiday were both on the bench for stretches in either half. Naturally, Harden was most efficient in situations where he was open or playing against a defense trying to match up in transition. The other way I tracked Harden's performance, by play type, helps shed light on these plays.
Play Shots Plays
Spot-Up 5 3
Transition 4 0
High P&R 3 5
Putback 1 0
Isolation 0 4
Off-Ball Screen 0 4
Side P&R 0 2
Postup 0 1
DHO (Handoff) 0 1
Very rarely did Harden create his own shot against a primary defender, which isn't as much a criticism of his game as a testament to the work done by Gant and Holiday. When Arizona State isolated Harden or put him in pick-and-rolls, the Huskies were able to turn him into a passer instead of a shooter. Washington's help defense, however, was uncharacteristically poor in the first half, allowing Harden and teammate Ty Abbott to get free for looks from beyond the arc. Harden also was able to get out in transition to manufacture scoring opportunities.
What this reinforces is Harden's offensive versatility. His ability to score in different manners is unique for a college wing. The combination of ballhandling, shooting range and ability to play through contact means Harden is a threat inside and out. Statistically, this shows up in the fact that Harden uses a high percentage of his possessions on both threes and free throws. His 191 makes and 251 attempts from the foul line both led the Pac-10 by a mile, and Harden ranked just outside the conference's top 10 in three attempts despite the fact that he's more of a good shooter than a great one.
The book on Harden, a southpaw, is that he is much more comfortable going to his left hand. Certainly, Harden prefers going left, but I think his ability to drive with his off hand is underrated. It does appear that Harden is more likely to look to pass when he is forced right, whereas driving left produces more of his forceful drives to the basket through contact.
Most of all, Arizona State likes to put Harden at the top of the key and offer him a ballscreen with the ability to go either direction. The big man frequently re-screened for Harden, in part because the Sun Devils' post players--especially perimeter-oriented power forwards Rihards Kuksiks and Jerren Shipp--are not good screeners.
Harden's ability to use a screen was most obviously on display late in regulation, with Arizona State up seven and the clock ticking down near a minute to play. Center Jeff Pendergraph screened for Harden, going to his right. Washington big man Jon Brockman jumped out to "show" or "hedge" on the screen and cut Harden off, but the Sun Devil star was able to split Brockman and guard Justin Dentmon. A quick crossover from his right hand to his left got Harden free, and he pulled up from about eight feet in the paint and connected over the Husky help defense to dampen UW's hope for a comeback.
Because of his ballhandling, Harden acts as something of an initiator for Arizona State. He brought the ball up about a fifth of the time against the Huskies, mostly in dead-ball situations, and also briefly ran the point to give Derek Glasser a rest with backup point guard Jamelle McMillan sidelined. I was surprised and disappointed that Harden was unable to offer more help to Glasser on Saturday when USC effectively pressed the Sun Devils during a second-half comeback, but his skill as a distributor was a key factor in the game. With the Trojans aggressively sending help defenders at Harden during the first half, he set up his teammates for easy buckets and finished with eight assists.
One potential area of improvement for Harden at the pro level is being a threat without the ball. Arizona State wasn't especially creative in running Harden off screens or sending him backdoor, content to let Gant and Holiday face-guard to try to deny him the basketball.
At the defensive end, Harden isn't asked to handle a ton of responsibility in Herb Sendek's 3-2 matchup zone, in which he generally plays the right wing. It's difficult to evaluate Harden's ability to defend quality wing players one-on-one in a system that specializes in providing help. Where Harden does stand out defensively is with his quick hands. Any time a ball is loose and Harden is in the area, he's likely to come away with it. Harden also tends to create a lot of those loose balls with strips. He has averaged 1.7 steals per game this season, down from 2.1 from a freshman, and generates turnovers without taking many unnecessary risks.
Friday's game and Saturday's loss to USC offered a chance to compare two different strategies for dealing with Harden. Even though he had the better game against Washington, I think I still prefer the idea of using a bigger defender to slow Harden and staying home on Arizona State's shooters and Pendergraph, the nation's leader in field-goal percentage. When the Trojans stopped the Sun Devils in the second half, it was more because they created turnovers and chaos with full-court pressure than what they did defensively against Harden.
Ultimately, a deeper look at Harden's game revealed no huge surprises. He is unquestionably the best player in the Pac-10 and stands with anyone in the country. Because of Harden's ability and versatility, Temple and other NCAA Tournament opponents down the road are going to be in for a challenge trying to contain him and beat Arizona State.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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