Coach K on Harden: 'I Love James'

Coach K on Harden: 'I Love James'
August 19, 2014, 8:45 pm
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(Stephen R. Sylvanie - USA Today Sports Images)

The FIBA World Cup of basketball begins in just over a week. Team USA boasts just two players who won gold medals with Team USA in the 2012 Olympics, the Pelicans' Anthony Davis and the Rockets' James Harden. Davis has just two years of NBA experience, while Harden will be entering his sixth NBA season next year in Houston. Harden's also coming off a season that landed him a spot on the all-NBA first team, the only player with Team USA to earn such honors.

His scoring potential is obvious, having averaged a shade under 26 points per game in his Rockets career and having finished fifth in the NBA in points per game both seasons. But it's his leadership and maturity that are huge assets to the group, according to U.S. Men's National Team head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

"James has been as good a leader as we’ve had for this team. He has a great personality. He is an upbeat guy, smart, and he’s obviously very, very talented," Krzyzewski said. "With this group, especially after Kevin (Durant) left, he has asserted himself even more as an older guy. I know him, he knows me, because we have worked together. He’s really one of our key guys. There is no question about it."

In Saturday's 95-78 exhibition win over Brazil in Chicago, Harden led the team in minutes played (28:42) and assists (five). He added 18 points, five rebounds, two steals and two blocks, while making all eleven of his free throw attempts.

"I think these past couple of years, I’ve prepared myself for this situation, basically having to lead a team in the Rockets," Harden said. "Obviously, we have a lot of all-stars on this team, which is going to make my job a lot easier. I’m just playing on both ends of the floor at a high level, making plays, getting into the paint, looking for my shot or looking for shooters. We got so many guys that can shoot the basketball on this team; it’s hard to guard us.

Krzyzewski, who has posted a 62-1 record as head coach of the USA National Team, appears prepared to lean heavily on Harden moving forward.

"I don’t how maturity develops when I’m not around it all the time. I just know that he’s one of the best players in the NBA. And having this responsibility here will only make him better," Krzyzewski said. "These guys get better after playing in this, because they go to places that they don’t necessarily go to on their own teams, whether it be in a subordinate role at times, a leadership role, the key player, the good talker, or whatever. James checks every box. I love James. We have a great, great relationship. That communication between the two of us can translate to even better communication with the guys on the court."

While Harden generated some likely unwanted media attention with his earlier comments about the role players on the Rockets, he recognizes how his role has changed from his 2012 Olympic experience when he played just 73 minutes in eight games, to the one he'll likely have with this group for the World Cup.

"Totally different, a totally different role for me," Harden said. "Me and Anthony Davis, we really didn’t play in 2012 (Olympics) in London. We learned a lot from those guys. Now, we are going to be playing heavy minutes. We are just going to take what we learned in London and bring it here … just trying to be a leader, make sure I’m talking every day and making sure my mindset is right going into every single practice and game.

During his final season in Oklahoma CIty that ended with a loss in the NBA Finals and on through his two seasons in Houston, Harden continues to say he's learned a lot about the game and a lot about himself, most specifically, in his words, "that I’m capable of leading a team."

"Obviously, I’m still learning and have a long way to go, but the first couple of steps are already there," Harden added. "So, trying to be more vocal is part of my leadership role, especially on this team. Guys have the talent, but guys are kind of shy and might not want to talk. Coach K(rzyzewski) had plenty of talks with me, (telling me to) make sure you’re vocal, make sure guys hear you. So, that’s what I tried to do."

The team has three more exhibition games scheduled before their first game of World Cup competition. They will face the Dominican Republic on Wednesday and Puerto Rico on Friday in New York, before playing an exhibition against Slovenia in Spain on Aug. 26. Their first game in the World Cup is on Aug. 30 against Finland in Bilbao, Spain.