“I haven’t heard the hype since I’ve been here,” said James Harden. “I just try to workout everyday not worrying about being a McDonald’s All-American. I’m just worrying about my studies (Harden reportedly has straight A’s in all of his summer school classes) and prepare myself for the season.”
His personality and character isn’t one that needs to be reminded to be level-headed, but even if it did, his teammates have ensured that Harden will worry about the important things and better himself. “They’re on me everyday to work hard,” he explained, “they say ‘don’t settle for less…don’t think you’re too good right now…you’re in college now and guys are stronger, quicker, faster…’ they’ve just been preparing me.”
Part of these preparations are rigorous summer workouts, and the guard said they’re paying their dividends for him and the rest of Arizona State’s freshman class. “We’re just trying to get stronger, see where we’re at right now, so when school starts we know what we have to do to prepare for the season,” Harden stated. “Since I’ve been here, I gained eight pounds of muscle (he’s up to 227 pounds) and dropped 2% of body fat. I’ve been trying to improve everyday and (Strength Coach) Coach Rich (Wenner) has been on me and it shows.”
Harden added that life outside the gym has been enjoyable. He’s trying to make as much time as possible for social activities, but his busy workout and school schedule don’t allow him that much free time.
Arizona State recruited Harden ever since his junior year, which was the first of two California state championships that the guard had won with Lakewood Artesia High School. Even though Harden had been to the Phoenix area a couple of times in the past to visit family, he didn’t know much about the Sun Devils until he was being recruited by Head Coach Herb Sendek, who at the time was just a couple months or so in his new post at ASU.
The Sun Devils offered Harden in May of last year and the following month announced the hiring of Harden’s high school coach, Scott Pera, as Director of Basketball Operations (since then Pera has been promoted to Assistant Coach). It was believed then that it was a slam dunk that the guard would follow his coach to Tempe, yet Harden said that he truly kept his options open. “I had other things in mind – Washington, staying home and playing for UCLA…,” he recalled. “I knew I would stay in the Pac-10 and I ended up coming to ASU.” Harden gave his verbal commitment to ASU in August of last year.
It goes without saying that Pera was ultimately a significant factor in Harden’s pledge to the maroon and gold. After all, he has been someone Harden immensely respects and credits his development to. “Since my freshman year he’s been on me, working me to death,” said Harden. “He had me running, and I had Asthma my freshman year but I grew out of it. I was six feet back then, and I just grew taller and my body matured. Coach always had me do extra shooting, and be more aggressive…it’s paying off right now.”
And has Coach Pera changed now that he’s Harden’s college coach?
“He’s the same coach like he was in high school,” Harden replied. “When it’s time to be serious he’s serious, and when it’s time to have fun he’s a real relaxed person.”
The McDonald’s All-American game that Harden was part of was the icing on the cake for what was an impressive 2006-07 season. In fact, Harden started making serious waves in the summer of 2006 where not only did his AAU club Pump ‘N Run Elite win two of the biggest West Coast tournaments (The Adidas Super 64 and Best of Summer), but the guard was the MVP of both those tournaments.
Following that highly productive summer, Harden led the Pioneers to its second consecutive state championship and a 33-1 campaign. The guard was voted Player of the Year and averaged 18.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.
Playing at the McDonald’s All-American game was probably a good sneak peak into the level of college basketball for the ASU freshman. For starters, Harden wasn’t the proverbial big star in that game, and that can only help him when he starts his ASU career, right?
“(laughs) It helped me a lot and in the back of my mind that’s a great accomplishment,” he admitted. “It gave me a little taste of college, because you were playing the top high school players in the country that are each going into their respective colleges. I know that now that I’m in college I have to work hard everyday.”
When playing with other star players at Artesia, not to mention the McDonald’s All-American game, Harden knows when to take a back seat in a game and not force the issue. “If a guy is on fire or has a mismatch, I’ll try to get him the ball as much as possible,” he said. “I’m not a selfish guy and if my coach tells me that I need to do something, I’ll do it.”
His humility also comes out when he’s asked to assess his skills. “I don’t think I have one aspect of my game that I’m really good at,” he remarked. “I just do everything OK and I need to improve on everything. I have a 7 foot wingspan, so that helps me get to a lot of loose balls on defense. My quickness also helps me on my defense.”
With all his incredible success at the high school and AAU level the last couple of seasons, Harden is prepared not only for the natural tough transition to the college game, but also for what would be in comparison a trying season for him with the rebuilding Sun Devils.
“The team won two Pac-10 games last year, and I only lost 15 games period since I’ve been in high school,” he noted. “I don’t wanna come here and start losing…we all have to work hard to not lose.”
Harden commented that he attended seven ASU games last season and is optimistic for the future. “We looked OK, and I could see some spots we needed improvement on,” he commented. “We have the right tools now and Coach Sendek knows what he’s doing – we’re gonna listen to him and work hard.”
Harden and the rest of the freshmen finish up summer school this week, and will go back home for the next two weeks until the fall semester starts, and at that time the guard knows that: “When school starts he’s (Sendek) gonna have us and he’s gonna work us hard. I can’t come back sloppy after I’ve been working so hard the last five weeks getting better. When I go home I’m gonna run every single day, work out, and come back ready to work.”
Home will shift to Tempe in more than one way for Harden. Harden’s mother, Monja Willis, has been thinking of moving to Phoenix area even before her son committed to the hometown school. The guard stated she bought a house and will move here in a couple of months. Furthermore, Harden’s older brother, Akili Roberson, who played quarterback at the University of Kansas in the late 90’s, spent the last couple of days in the valley looking for some housing of his own for his future move. “My Mom never pressured me to go to ASU,” he said. “She told me that whatever I do she’ll be 100% behind me.”
So aside from being a bona fide blue chip recruit who’s been igniting the imagination of the Sun Devil nation for several months now, Harden will have his family close-by and in-person following his career. This all could equate to too much pressure on any player, but once again Harden’s personality won’t let him be affected by these apparent influences. “Guys in the locker room treat me like a regular player. In school I’m a regular kid just trying to have some fun and get used to things,” he stated. “I’m gonna keep the same focus, not get distracted and I’ll be fine.”
Even though he’s the poster boy of humbleness, Harden is confident enough in his team to possibly have a surprising season and prove Pac-10 pundits wrong. “We have a transfer in Eric Boateng, we have Jeff Pendergraph – a returner who had success in the Pac-10, and we have a good group of freshmen guards, who played here last year, and me and the rest of the freshmen are coming in hoping to make some changes.”
Many ASU fans believe that the 2007 recruiting class, headed by Harden, would be the sole reason for a dramatic turnaround for Sun Devil basketball. The guard naturally disagrees. “We can be a big part of it, but they had some key guys here last year,” said Harden. “We just wanna come in and help those guys out, do well in the Pac-10 and hopefully make it to the tournament.”
Artesia High School (Lakewood, Calif.)
Date of Birth
”Big Game James”
Favorite TV Show
”He Got Game.”
”Don’t have one favorite type of food.”
”Gatorade. Been drinking a lot of Gatorade and Water since I’ve been here.”
”Kobe Bryant – number 8, not number 24.”
Favorite Pro Team
”Los Angeles Lakers.”
Person you most admire
”My mom. She’s a single parent, so strong and always there for me.”
First Basketball Memory
”First time I picked a basketball I was 11. All I did is shoot and just got better from there.”
One Thing most people don’t know about me
”I’m a very open-minded guy. Whatever I feel like saying, I go ahead and say it.”
Why did you choose ASU?
Where do you want to be in ten years?
”Hopefully living a successful life.”
Thanks go out to Jack Leary and Jacob Krug for assisting with this article.