The man with the best facial hair in the NBA if not all of professional sports, James Harden, looks to have an expanded role for the Oklahoma City Thunder once their 2011-12 season commences in the Sooner State on Christmas Day.
A 6-foot-5, 22-year-old guard who was the third overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, he has spent each of his first two seasons in the Association in primarily a sixth man role for the Thunder.
He comes off a season where he hit the floor for all 82 regular-season games, including five starts and averaged 12.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. Harden was one of the first if not the primary option off the pine for OKC head coach Scott Brooks last season, one that ended with the Thunder advancing to the Western Conference Finals, where they fell to eventual league titleholder.
But with Thabo Sefolosha, a defensive whiz who doesn't contribute much on the offensive end of the floor, likely headed to the bench, that means this ex-Arizona State Sun Devil now moves into Brooks' starting five at the two spot.
And it's a move the OKC head coach feels the third-year Harden is ready to make.
"Well, Harden has played good basketball his first two years in the league. He's improved his first two years and we expect him to get better this year," Brooks said. "We have a good mixture of ball handlers, playmakers and shooters, multiple guys. I think the good teams can throw multiple playmakers on the floor and we have that. Kevin Durant can be a great playmaker and Russell Westbrook is a great playmaker and now to have James in the mix and Eric Maynor in the mix, we like that."
There is clearly much for the Thunder head coach to like about Harden but one thing that continues to impress him about his versatile, young guard is the fact that he keeps improving on the defensive end.
"He's improved at both ends of the floor. His defense is getting better. Like all of our guys, they've got to keep working on that end of the floor," Brooks said. "They're talented players offensively but defensively, they've still got to work and get better at that end."
And that improvement is something someone whose beard is almost as famous as he is takes an immense amount of pride in.
"Just as a person and on the court, trying to have that mentality that I want to work hard and get better every single day. That's trickling down throughout the whole organization, from management to the players, the coaches," Harden said. "We're in the gym working every single day just to get better."
So, what about his trademark beard? Yes, he does get asked about it quite often and yes, his beard does have its own Twitter account but any discussion about his signature look is something this ASU product takes in jest.
"People always have something to say about it. People will come up to me and say I have something in my beard and I can't feel it," he said. "During the lockout, I wasn't shaving. I was just letting it grow wild when I was bored. I had to tighten it up a little bit once we started practicing but it's getting longer."
As for his shift from being a sixth man to a starter, Harden realizes it might be a bit of an adjustment but it wasn't all that long ago when he was starting for the Sun Devils and terrorizing opposing teams in what was then known as the Pacific-10 Conference.
"No, it won't be weird but for our situation, the team we have and the way that we flow with each other, coming off the bench isn't a bad thing at all. All of us have adapted to that role," he said. "We have a role on this team and I think each player does a good job of playing that role. I just want to make contributions and work hard by whenever I get in games, just making plays for my teammates. I'll be a playmaker out there and do whatever it takes to win the game whether that's passing, scoring, whatever the case may be."
And whether or not he's a starter or a bench player, Harden knows his role and mentality remain the same every time he hits the hardwood.
"I focus on just playing my role, not just scoring but playmaking ability, just getting my teammates involved, getting the bigs involved, finding shooters and things like that, just not scoring for myself but making plays and being effective out there," he said.
Yet another thing that he brings to OKC is versatility. Not only can this California native play both guard spots, but he also has the size to fill in at the three spot in a pinch, something else he feels makes him a better player in today's NBA.
"It's good because you get so many opportunities and the coaches can put you in at different positions like a utility guy who can play point guard, shooting guard, whatever the case may be," Harden said. "With the scoring we have from Kevin Durant, the athletic point guard we have in Russell Westbrook, I think I can fit between those two to help even things out."
Harden also likes the fact that in his first two seasons with the Thunder, there hasn't been much turnover in personnel, which has allowed him and his teammates to develop a great deal of continuity not only with Brooks but the entire coaching staff.
"It's all crisp. It's a flowing movement. Other teams have trades and things you have to go through during training camp but it's been smooth sailing," Harden said. "We just want to work hard, get better in camp and so far, it's been going good."