Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Houston Rockets guard James Harden may have averaged 23.6 points, 5.4 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals over his first 17 games this season, but he did it with the efficiency of an early-2000s Allen Iverson.
Harden's field goal percentage dropped to .410 after he shot 3-of-19 on Dec. 4 against the Los Angeles Lakers, two games after going 3-16 against his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. He turned the ball over four times in that game and 4.1 times per game over his first 17.
He also made 1.8 3-pointers per game but took 5.6 attempts to do it (.326). What kept his scoring average so high was his ability to get to the foul line -- he attempted an average of 9.2 free throws (making 7.6) over his first 17 games.
The guard's shooting percentage was boosted by his performance in his first two games with his new team, in which he scored 41 ppg on 63.6 percent shooting. In his next 15 games, he only made 36.9 percent of his shots (.309 3PT).
The numbers were there so it was tough to be disappointed, but we knew he was capable of more. After all, he made 49.1 percent of his shots last season and only turned the ball over 2.2 times per game. Since he was taking fewer shots and handling the ball less, it was probably unrealistic to expect anything close to that type of efficiency, but there was certainly potential for improvement as he grew into his new role as Houston's No. 1 offensive option.
Following that brick-fest on Dec. 4, Harden has ripped off a stretch of games rivaled only by Kobe Bryant. In his last 10 games, the Rockets playmaker is averaging 29.6 points, 5.2 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. He's doing it on a sensational .518 field goal percentage with just 2.7 turnovers per game in that span.
Harden has made 2.1 3-pointers per game during his current hot streak on just 5.0 attempts (.420). But perhaps his most impressive feat is his work at the free-throw line. The guard has reached that charity stripe 11.3 times per game over his last 10 games, and he has picked up 10.3 free points per game during that span.
Harden is second in the NBA in free-throw attempts with 269, 20 less than Dwight Howard. But whereas Howard has handicapped fantasy teams by making just 148 of those free throws, Harden has done the opposite by making 86.6 percent of his attempts (233-269). Obviously, Harden's .866 free-throw percentage carries more weight than Kevin Martin's .930 since the former OKC guard has taken 155 more shots from the foul line than his replacement.
There's even cause for more optimism in Harden's recent play. While his improved shooting began on Dec. 7 at San Antonio and has lasted 10 games, Harden still turned the ball over 14 times from Dec. 7-12 (he also missed a game with an ankle injury on Dec. 10). However, he has given the ball away just 13 times over his last seven games, in the process proving that he can shoot .496/.414/.901 on 16.1 shot attempts and 11.6 free-throw attempts per game and average 5.1 assists while still protecting the basketball.
After Harden's season-opening explosion (37 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals), I recommended taking Harden over his former teammate Russell Westbrook in fantasy drafts. However, Harden looked more like Westbrook over his first 17 games than I ever expected.
Now that he is back to playing like James Harden, the Rockets guard is pulling away from Westbrook and has his sights set on another former teammate: Kevin Durant, the current No. 1 overall player in (Yahoo!) fantasy leagues.