NBA All-Star 2013: James Harden, better than everyone expected

USA TODAY Sports

Following his trade from the Thunder, there were plenty of questions about whether James Harden could be a true alpha dog. Heading into All-Star Weekend, Harden has put an end to most of those discussions.

The entire NBA world shook when Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski dropped the bomb that the Oklahoma City Thunderhad traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets just days before the start of this season. The Thunder tried to ink Harden - an integral part of their NBA Finals run - to an extension, but the reigning Sixth Man of the Year felt he deserved more money.

Long in search of that star player, the Rockets were willing to give it to him, almost immediately signing the man with the best beard in the NBA to a five-year, $80 million max extension after the trade went through. It was a bold move by both sides, and so far, one that has panned out beautifully.

Kevin Martin has done an excellent job in Oklahoma City, and the Thunder are humming along with a record of 39-14. And as for Harden, there were not many people who thought he would be quite as great as he has been.

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After the Rockets signed Harden to that big extension, there were plenty of questions about whether he could be a true alpha dog. Sure, Harden was the lead man at Arizona State and boasted excellent numbers last year with the Thunder, but he was still mostly a sidekick to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City.

However, we saw numerous glimpses of how dominant he could be, with perhaps his most notable performance being a 29-point effort in Game 4 of the first round to sweep away the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. Harden scored 15 of his 29 points in the fourth, blitzing the Mavs with drive after drive to the basket. It was a bit of a coming out party, and he would go on to have several more phenomenal games in the postseason.

Harden did struggle mightily in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, but that's not all that unexpected for a 22-year-old playing on that stage for the first time. The talent was obviously there, which is why he was the No. 3 pick in the 2009 draft and why the Rockets were willing to make him "the guy" in Houston for years to come.

Upon his arrival in Houston, Harden immediately took the league by storm. In his first game as a Rocket, the guard scored 37 points on 14-of-25 shooting to go along with 12 assists in a 105-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons. The next game, he one-upped himself, pouring in a career-high 45 points on 14-of-19 shooting in a 109-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks.

As the year has gone on, there have been some ups and downs, whether it be shooting slumps or turnover problems or defensive issues. But on the whole, Harden has been brilliant, earning his first ever All-Star Game bid and making basketball in Houston exciting again.

Heading into the break, Harden is fifth in the NBA in scoring at 26.1 points per game while also dishing out 5.7 assists per game. And while his 44.8 percent shooting overall and 34.7 percent from deep is not all that impressive, where he really makes a killing is at the free throw line. He leads the league in free throw attempts per game with 10.0, and is shooting 85.5 percent from the stripe. This is the reason why his true shooting percentage is still 60.0 percent, an excellent mark for somebody with such a high usage rate.

Paired with Jeremy Lin in the backcourt, Harden and the Rockets prefer to play at breakneck speed. Houston leads the league in pace and is first in the league in scoring at 106.1 points per game. It's why they are 29-26 and currently in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference despite being rather poor defensively.

Harden is currently battling an injured ankle, but he will in fact be playing in the All-Star Game on Sunday in front of his home crowd in Houston. And not only will that aspect of it be fun, but it will be cool to see Harden share the court again with his former teammates in Durant and Westbrook. Those three guys were rock stars last year between their fantastic play, crazy outfits and memorable press conferences, so seeing them together again should be a treat.

And have I mentioned that Harden has the NBA's best beard?

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