The first thing you notice about James Harden is the beard – a mass of black so dense it appears to be growing a beard of its own. If his facial hair resembles that of Rick Ross, the 'do atop his head is straight "A-Team": a close-cropped Mohawk.
To complete his eclectic look, Harden often wears a bow tie and a brightly colored cardigan. He is, in his own words, "different."
Which is why it shouldn't come as a surprise that Harden – despite having proven himself as one of the NBA's best young guards – is comfortable coming off the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder instead of clamoring for a starting job like many players of his age and talent.
"I've grown into this role," Harden said.
No reserve in the league has been better this season. Averaging 16.9 points and 4.1 rebounds for the Thunder, Harden is the favorite to be named the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year. He scored a career-high 40 points this week in a victory over the Phoenix Suns.
"He's an underrated shooter, great pick-and-roll player and makes great decisions," said Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who said he thought Harden should have been selected as a reserve for the West's All-Star team. "He is just a heck of a basketball player."
Playing behind All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Harden has helped give the Thunder one of the league's most talented young cores. He entered the 2009 NBA draft after his second season at Arizona State and even emailed Thunder general manager Sam Presti why he would be a good fit for the franchise.
The Thunder already had Durant, Westbrook and young forward Jeff Green, another scorer, but still chose to take Harden third overall, ahead of Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio and Stephen Curry. While Evans and Curry finished 1-2 for the Rookie of the Year award in their first seasons, Harden was frustrated coming off the bench for the Thunder and playing behind defensive-minded shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha.
"Anyone would fight it," Harden said. "They drafted me so high. My rookie year had a lot of learning curves."
Harden's role grew midway through last season after the Thunder traded Green, center Nenad Krstic, a first-round pick and cash to the Boston Celtics for center Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. Harden averaged 15.8 points in the 28 games after last year's All-Star break. He's played even better this season and admits he's been motivated after being left off this year's All-Star team.
"Bringing that playmaking ability off the bench and having Thabo start is definitely better for our team," Harden said. "I think everyone is comfortable with their role now for these past three years."
The big question facing the Thunder: Will they be able to afford all three of their young guards? Durant entered this season with five years and $89 million left on his contract. Westbrook signed a five-year, $80 million contract extension in January. Harden will make $5.8 million next season, and the Thunder can offer a contract extension once free agency begins July 1. Thunder starting forward Serge Ibaka also is eligible for an extension this summer.
If Harden and Ibaka don't sign extensions, they will become restricted free agents at the end of next season. One NBA assistant general manager told Yahoo! Sports that Harden could command $10 million per season on the open market. Presti said the franchise will try to sign both Harden and Ibaka this offseason.
"We're looking forward to having those conversations," Presti said. "Those guys are guys we drafted and have developed internally. We see them as guys who are important to sustaining our team."
While Durant and Westbrook will draw most of the attention in the playoffs, the guy with the beard and bow tie could be the key to pushing the Thunder to their first NBA Finals appearance.
"When he has a big game," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said, "we're tough to beat."
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