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James Harden and the Value of Hard Work

James Harden is a well-known and soon to be very well paid professional basketball player. He was on this year's Olympic Basketball team and a key member of the Oklahoma City Thunder which lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. When he wasn't able to come to terms with OKC, he was traded to the Houston Rockets and the working assumption is he'll soon sign a max deal with them -- in the neighborhood of 4 years for $60 million. [link to article]

I used to work out at this gym called HAX [link] -- it's a tremendous basketball facility and a lot of professional basketball players work out there. The biggest names were Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant, and Dwight Howard. I never saw those guys -- but I usually would be told by the front desk that they were there that week. But do you know who I saw? James Harden. James Harden was there, by far, the most of any of the players I saw (second most was Brandon Jennings.) For basketball junkies -- some of the other (lesser well-known) players there included: Jarrett Jack, Shaun Livingston, JaVale McGee, and Javaris Crittenden (yes, that Javaris Crittenden). Now -- it's not that the other players necessarily work less hard than Harden -- after all, Harden may simply have worked out when I worked out. But the reason why this is interesting to me is I saw Harden when he was just establishing himself in the league. Harden was drafted in 2009 [link] and while he was the 3rd pick overall, he was a mildly controversial pick. A lot of pundits, in fact, felt like GM Sam Presti was drafting not the best player, but someone who could fit within their system / style of play / values. (I, myself, preferred for them to choose either Ricky Rubio or Steph Curry.)

Harden's early years in the NBA were good not great [link]. I think the book on him was that he was a solid, maybe even good rotational player -- one that gelled well with Oklahoma City, but certainly not a superstar that merited inclusion on the Olympic team or a franchise foundational piece, as Houstons GM Daryl Morey has now called him. This was when I watched Harden at HAX.

Every time I saw him, he was always running drills. Frankly, he wasn't terribly impressive. In fact, I was talking to one of the coaches at HAX and said specifically in reference to Harden, "If I didn't know who he was, I wouldn't have guessed he was an NBA player." Harden looked ok. I remember him doing a 3 on 3 drill. He was shooting a bunch of 3s, passing, making cuts, etc. Nothing special. But he certainly didn't have out of this world athleticism or anything like that. He just seemed like any other guy working on his game. I should also note that between Harden and Jennings -- Harden was always working on some small aspect of his game. Jennings was always there, but always playing pickup games. I never once saw Jennings run a drill (not that he didn't, I just never saw it.)

Harden made the leap last year, no doubt. But the thing that I love about Harden is his climb. People seem to think -- and this applies not just to sports but even to things like startups or, frankly, any endeavor -- that people are fully formed right out of the gate. As someone who has watched a ton of sports -- nothing could be further from the truth. There are a handful of counter-examples, but they're extremely rare. Players typically show some degree of promise and, of course, have a minimum level of raw talent that they can build upon, but beyond that -- there's a tremendous amount of growth needed before one gets to each subsequent level. That's what we've seen from Harden. He's a really smart, savvy basketball player. His performance last year was one of the most efficient in NBA's history (seriously). He can shoot, drive, run the pick and roll -- and is one of the most unusual, creative basketball players around. But I think it would be folly to simply assume that he got there by some magic virtue of who he was fundamentally -- with the exception of his desire to get better. I loved going to the gym and seeing a near empty place and Harden there, working on his game. I always wondered why there weren't more players there. Some were working out somewhere else -- but if that facility was good enough for Harden, Jennings, Dwight Howard, and others -- clearly it's one of the best facilities in Los Angeles which is where a lot of NBA players make their off-season home. Harden was there, in the summer, constantly working on his game -- so much so that he's now one of the top 25 basketball players in the world.