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Film Study: James Harden’s eight assists against Detroit

Film Study: James Harden’s eight assists against Detroit

If you can’t tell, I’m a little obsessed with the details of basketball. I like knowing how and why the other team scored, as well as my own. Anyway, James Harden caught some attention last Friday with his eight assist performance in Detroit. He’s also caught a little criticism for his supposed slow start to his rookie year. But I wanted to break out some video to show exactly what Harden brings to the floor and why he’s going to be an absolutely dynamic offensive player for the Thunder. He can score, don’t worry. That stuff will come. But lots of athletic guys can score. What Harden’s got is intelligence, an understanding of the game and the most important thing of all – this thing called feel.

(Big time thanks to reader Johnny for the video.)

Two assists stand out from that sequence more than any other. And they’re not even the flashiest ones. I like Harden’s dish to Etan Thomas for a layup and his little wrap-around bounce pass to Nick Collison for a dunk. But let’s look at a couple of the eight.

First Assist:

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People talk about how Harden is smooth. This play is a great example. But the best part about it is how intelligent and fundamental he is with the ball. He simply dribbles around the hedge out top and gets exactly where he needs to be with ease – the elbow. He draws in a defender off Kevin Ollie, but here’s a small difference between say Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook would likely take an extra dribble or two and get into the paint and draw a defender that way. Westbrook would probably leave his feet and kick that way. It essentially gets the job done the same, but it’s higher risk with the in-air pass and extra dribbles in a crowded lane. Harden on the other hand, stops, picks up his dribble and here’s the most important part- goes into the triple-threat. That’s what draws the defender here. He pulls the ball up as if he’s going to take a 16-foot jumper and it sucks Will Bynum to him. Then it’s just an easy dish to Ollie for an open shot.

Second Assist:

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I love this one. Same idea as the first – gets around a couple defenders and goes to the baseline. Another intelligent play coming – instead of rushing to make a pass, he takes his time and lets the play develop. To buy himself a little more time and keep from Kwame Brown and Jason Maxiell getting right up in his face and pressuring a pass, Harden gives a slight pump to throw them off-balance. It also gives the appearance that he’s going to be a threat from that spot and makes Maxiell commit and leave Collison. Nick gives a simple little slip to the bucket and Harden makes a smart wrap-around bounce pass for a dunk.

Third and Fourth Assists:

These two assists are just kind of simple basketball plays. Get in the lane, draw defenders, find and open man and pass him the ball. Not everybody can make it because a lot don’t have their heads up, but Harden makes both easily.

Fifth Assist

This one is just pretty. It’s all done left-handed and he just operates all in one motion. No wasted movement, no indecisiveness. The thing is, Harden could have exploded at the rim for a challenged layup attempt, but he had his eyes open and was seeing the play before it happened. And he makes a beautiful one handed no-look bounce to Jeff Green for two.

Sixth Assist:

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This is my favorite. It’s a perfectly executed pick and roll but Harden does one very, very key thing: He waits. Instead of hitting Thomas in en route to the bucket, he gives Thomas a chance to move on the down the lane. First, that’s smart because it allows Thomas to catch the ball in great scoring position but secondly, it means that your 6-11 big man doesn’t have to take a dribble to score meaning less room for error. Any time you can avoid your center dribbling, it’s good. I just love Harden’s little ball fake. It’s just so… fundamental. This play is exactly what people mean when they talk about feel. The ball movement keeps his defender’s arms off the ball and is an effective way to let Thomas get near the bucket. Just an excellent play.

And his seventh and eighth assists aren’t anything fancy. Just a fast break dish to KD for a flush and an inbounds pass to Nick Collison for a jumper. But the point is with all this, is showing what Harden adds. This was his second game as a pro and he COMPLETELY opened up Oklahoma City’s offense. He hit cutters, made the defense move and rotate and executed plays. Don’t worry about his shooting percentages or scoring averages right now. He’s a rookie and he’s played three games. If you expected him to step in opening night and put up 23 points on 7-13 shooting and hit four 3s, well then you’re expectations are insane.

Harden’s clearly got the intelligence and feel to be a dynamic offensive player. The plays he made against Detroit are typically the ones you’re hoping a player can learn to make in his third of fourth year. It’s rare that a guy has this stuff down EARLY in his rookie year. The scoring and shooting is going to come, don’t worry. But this is the type of stuff that’s hard to teach.