Posted Sep 9 2010 7:36PM
There were plenty of times last season when James Harden could have wondered what it was like to be a rookie getting all of the big headlines.
After all, he saw Brandon Jennings drop in his eye-popping double nickels that were replayed endlessly on SportsCenter and he saw Tyreke Evans get enough opportunities with the ball in his hands to take home the Rookie of the Year trophy.
What he also saw was room to grow.
While the No. 3 pick in the 2009 draft had a solid first NBA season as the fourth option on the Thunder behind Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, he understands there is plenty more he can do at both ends of the court.
"I've got to bring it every night in every game all season long and never let up when I'm on the court," Harden said. "I don't want to just be the guy on offense who spots up in the corner for 3-pointers and doesn't do all of the other things. I don't want to be somebody on defense who makes a couple of big plays a game, but doesn't keep his man bottled up every time down floor."
The 6-foot-5 guard was often impressive early in the summer at the Orlando Summer League, attacking the basket consistently and drawing enough fouls to become at least a part-time resident at the free throw line.
"To be honest, I didn't know what to expect in my rookie year," Harden said. "I was just happy to be in the NBA and I wanted to work hard and try to do the right things.
"But I think that I spent too much time trying to pick my spots and wait for openings and I didn't do all that I could in a lot of games, a lot of situations that could really have helped the team. Those are things that I've learned from watching Kevin and Russell and Jeff, from listening to the coaching staff, just from seeing how everything works.
"I'm not saying that I've got to look to try to take over games and or make things more about myself. I like being a teammate and trying to set everyone else up. But what I've got to do is have enough confidence in myself to be as good as I can be."
While Durant and Westbrook have spent a good chunk of their summer playing for Team USA at the World Championship in Turkey, Harden stayed in the gym toiling and went back home to play at the Drew League in South Central L.A., which has been generally regarded as California's top pro-am league for years.
Harden has missed very few opportunities during the offseason to hone his skills and sharpen his attitude heading into his second NBA season, where the Thunder have become the up-and-coming darlings after their six-game rumble with the eventual champion Lakers in first round of the playoffs last spring.
"I've been hearing a lot of people saying we had a great run against the Lakers, that we're one of the promising teams, a group to watch," Harden said. "But we don't look at it like that. We should have beaten them. That's our mindset. We could have beaten the Lakers and we should have beaten them and the only way to change that is to get better and go from there."
One of the ways Oklahoma City can get better is by continuing to improve on defense, which was the biggest hole in Harden's game as a rookie. If he is going to eventually overtake Thabo Sefolosha for the spot in the starting lineup, that's where the biggest strides have to be taken.
"We have a team that is getting better and he has to improve his defense," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "If he wants to be a player who impacts games, it has to be at the defensive end.
"I like what Harden does offensively. I like that he takes the ball to the basket and looks for ways that others can score, not only to score himself. But in order to stay on the floor and play meaningful minutes in big games, play in the fourth quarters of games, the defense has to improve. He understands that. He's worked hard in summer. You have to bring it into October and into the season. I'm seeing improvement, but he still has a ways to go. You shouldn't be getting beat on the same mistakes that were getting you beat in the first week of camp in your rookie year. What I like is that he wants to do that and he's working to that end."
As a rookie, Harden averaged 9.9 points per game and was Oklahoma City's top scorer off the bench.
But now, as the burden is on the Thunder to step up in class, so too does it grow more on Harden.
"I like all of the things he does," Brooks said. "But I told him that the pressure is on him to be there for his teammates and to make plays. He doesn't have to give us 20 points a night. But he does have to attack and be aggressive every chance that he gets.
"We're only a small part of the way as a team to where we want to go and that's the way James has to feel about himself to help us get the rest of the way."
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