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Harden fits in elite group

The former All-American at Lakewood Artesia High is beginning to get the same recognition as the other heralded freshmen in the Pac-10.

January 29, 2008|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

The four best freshmen in the Pacific 10 Conference will be in Los Angeles this week, all of them among the best in the country.

The title of least-talked-about goes to James Harden of Arizona State -- the only one from the Los Angeles area.

It's a Kevin Love-O.J. Mayo world sometimes, and Jerryd Bayless plays for an elite program at Arizona.

Harden took a different road after winning two state titles at Lakewood Artesia High, following one of his high school coaches and an ex-teammate to Arizona State.

"People were shocked," said Harden, the first McDonald's All-American to sign with Arizona State out of high school since 1984. "They were like, 'Why are you going to go there?' I still get questions, people asking me why I decided to go here."

He could answer them for a while with a ranking. After an upset of Xavier and a win over Arizona, the Sun Devils -- after finishing 8-22 last season, Coach Herb Sendek's first -- were ranked in the top 25, only to fall out after three consecutive losses coming into Thursday's game at UCLA and Saturday's visit to USC.

There is room for debate over which freshman is the most valuable to his team or who will be the best NBA player. But with each of them leading their team in scoring and all of them among the Pac-10's top eight scorers, there's no debating their importance in the league.

"I don't see any value in trying to compare those young men's excellence any more than I'd be able to answer a similar question about my three daughters," Sendek said. "They're all terrific players."

There have been nights when Harden, the Sun Devils' leading scorer at 18.8 points per game -- as well as their second-leading rebounder and assist man and the Pac-10 leader in steals -- listened in vain to hear his name mentioned in discussions about the nation's top freshmen.

"I did a couple of times. It didn't get called," said the 6-foot-4 Harden, whose most impressive statistic might be his shooting percentage -- he is making 54.6% of his shots as a guard.

Then came the Arizona victory, when he scored 22 of his 26 points in the second half and overtime. He heard his name that night.

"Yeah, I got a little smile," Harden said.

He has plenty of fans among Pac-10 coaches -- and in one former Pac-10 coach you might not expect, Jim Harrick, who coached Harden on the Pump 'N' Run Elite summer travel team in 2006.

"I just love him," said Harrick, who coached UCLA to its last national championship in 1995. "People talk about Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo. There's no question in my mind you have to put James Harden on that list. He was as good that summer as anybody, and we played Beasley's team and beat them.

"First of all, he could guard anybody, a bigger wing, a point guard. Offensively, he had the ability to score different ways. He could hit the three, he had a great medium-range jumper and he could really drive to the basket and finish the play.

"He could get out on the break and score on the break, and he could get to the foul line and make his free throws. You find a player that can score five different ways, he's really hard to stop.

"He's just tremendous. He's very unselfish, all about winning, just a fierce competitor. I didn't even know the guy when we started playing and boy, I found myself going to him, creating things for him, isolations. I think he's got a lot of Cuttino Mobley in him."

Harden has come a long way from the youngster who showed up at Artesia overweight and slowed by asthma that has since subsided.

"A 6-1 fat kid who could stand in the deep corner and shoot floater threes," said Derek Glasser, the former Artesia point guard who, like Harden, followed onetime Artesia coach Scott Pera to Arizona State after Pera was hired as Sendek's director of operations. Pera since has been promoted to assistant coach.

"He couldn't put the ball on the floor. Could barely touch the backboard," Glasser said. "It's hard to be a slasher when you're not athletic, so he couldn't really slash yet. But he grew and he lost his baby fat. Say good night, that was it."

Glasser first committed to USC but signed with Arizona State after Pera was hired. Harden, a year behind him -- and still the youngest player in the Pac-10 after turning 18 in August -- eventually followed.

Hiring a prospect's high school coach -- or even his father -- isn't against NCAA rules. Sendek, who had spoken to Pera about Harden before he left North Carolina State for Arizona State, defended the decision.

"At first, my entire staff intended on joining me here at Arizona State, but when that didn't finally happen we brought Scott on and he obviously gave us an even better entry into James and his family, and fortunately for us it all worked out," Sendek said.

"My charge is to do what's best for our basketball program, to hire quality coaches who can teach, who can lead, and also assemble talented young players, and I think adding coach Pera to our staff and James to our roster accomplished both of those goals."

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