HOUSTON — You see him now: rolling down the court like a tractor-trailer with no brakes, shimmying from side to side, yet barreling straight ahead. It’s difficult to imagine James Harden not constantly attacking the basket.
But that only means you were never inside the practice gym during those two years at Arizona State. Doug Collins was.
“I wish he had the energy he played with at Arizona State,” the Sixers’ coach said a few minutes before Harden went out and torched his team for 33 points on just 12 field goal attempts.
“If you ask James Harden to tell you one thing he heard from Doug Collins for two years, he’ll tell you: ‘Play with a motor. Play with a motor.’ He had no motor in college. None.”
Collins was out of coaching back in those days, working as a TNT commentator, when he became a frequent visitor to the Sun Devils’ workouts and the burr under the saddle of a certain guard who had all the flashy trim of a fancy sports car, but might as well have been sitting it up on milk crates.
“[Collins] taught me a lot,” Harden said. “He would mentor me. He would tell me that I had to have a motor. I had to build a motor up to be successful and have a chance to play in the NBA. My sophomore year, the reason I came back [to college] was to learn and build my motor up. He was the reason for that.
“I was nonchalant, just chill. That’s how I still am, but I have a little motor in me now. That’s the difference. He saw me in my building stage, when I was preparing for the NBA. So for him to have great compliments about me, it means a lot to me.”
Collins says the next critical step in Harden’s development was going to Oklahoma City and falling in with just the right trio of gym rats in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, who never tired of getting to practice early and staying late, who wouldn’t accept anyone into their circle that wouldn’t play with the same fervor. Harden worked tirelessly to improve his conditioning and he built up his strength to the point where he might be as unstoppable an offensive force as any player in the league.
“I don’t [usually] compare players by any stretch of the imagination,” Collins said. “But when he’s coming down the floor with the ball, he is very similar to LeBron James. When you combine size, strength, speed — and he loves contact. He seeks contact on every play.”
Every time the undermanned Sixers made a run at the Rockets on Wednesday night, Harden was there to block it like a boulder in the road — with a 3 or by getting to the line to hit 17 of his 18 free throws. And he’s made the adjustment from coming off the bench in OKC to starting in Houston; from being a role player to being the point of the spear in the offense so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget that he arrived in Houston just three days before the season opener.
“I didn’t set any expectations coming in,” Harden said. “It was a new role for me: starting, playing a lot more minutes with the ball in my hands. So my expectation was just get the guys together and try to win games as soon as possible. We’re on the right track.”
There is still a lot to figure out with the Rockets, still plenty of holes to fill on a roster with glaring inconsistency. It’s maybe hard to see them hanging around their current spot at the bottom of the playoff race unless a lot comes together quickly. But, then, it did for Harden.
“He can shoot the 3,” Collins said. “He’s got a great feel for the game. He has shot 11 less free throws than my three leading scorers. He puts the pressure on you all the time … I love what he’s about — his development, his improvement.
“It’s funny, when he sees me, he’ll say, ‘I’ve got a motor now, coach.’ ”