The crown jewel of Arizona State’s basketball team was so fat as a high school freshman he couldn’t touch the backboard.
“I didn’t think he would ever get to where he is now,” sophomore point guard Derek Glasser said of James Harden, his teammate at Artesia High School in Lakewood, Calif. “I’m sometimes in awe of how good he got. But he’s really improved so much over the years.”
Harden doesn’t need a trampoline to touch the backboard these days. Nor does his talent need any hyperbole.
He’s the real deal, a freshman so talented — he’s the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with ASU out of high school since Chris Sandle in 1984 — that he’ll carry the Sun Devils from a 2-16 Pac-10 record last year to a postseason tournament this year.
OK, so it won’t be the NCAA tournament. That prize is likely a year away.
But a winning record and a spot in the postseason NIT? That’s not beyond Harden’s reach.
“He’s clearly going to be one of our key guys,” coach Herb Sendek said.
That’s nonsense, and Sendek knows it.
Harden will be the key guy, the player ASU turns to in the last minute of tight games and their ticket out of college basketball purgatory.
“If we’re going to win close games, I think he has the potential to do it for us,” Glasser said.
Harden, a 6-foot-4 small forward, is the most complete player to come to ASU in the past 25 years. He can shoot the 3, defend and get his teammates involved. What makes him special, however, is his ability to get to the basket and finish.
Think about it. How many Sun Devils of recent vintage have been able to create their own shot off penetration and use their body to initiate contact and get to the foul line?
You won’t need both hands to count, that’s for sure.
“James certainly has the ability to score in a variety of ways,” Sendek said. “Not the least of which is his uncanny knack of getting to the foul line. He’s not a one-dimensional scorer. The guy will find different ways to score.”
What’s also appealing about Harden is that, by all accounts, his ego doesn’t match his game. Unlike USC freshman guard O.J. Mayo, who wouldn’t give coach Tim Floyd his cell phone number, saying, “I’ll call you,” Harden has impressed Sendek and his teammates with his willingness to fit in and be part of the team.
“He didn’t come in here and say ‘I’m a McDonald’s All-American, I’m doing this, I’m shooting 30 times a game,’” Glasser said. “He didn’t do that at all. He works as hard as anybody.”
Added Sendek: “He’s humble enough to know that he has a lot to learn.”
ASU couldn’t have picked a worse time to try to regain its footing in college basketball. The Pac-10 is stronger and deeper than it’s ever been. Some prognosticators believe eight teams could make the NCAA tournament.
The Sun Devils — who will start three freshmen — won’t be one of them. But for the first time in years, Wells Fargo Arena won’t feel like a morgue.
ASU is on the rise, and the kid who couldn’t touch the backboard five years ago is providing the liftoff.
Listen to Scott Bordow every Monday at 3:25 p.m. on The Fan AM 1060 with Bob Kemp.