How a strange bet with his high school coach helped James Harden master his signature skill

James Harden is the NBA’s leading scorer this season, averaging 27 points per game on 45% shooting.

Harden is arguably the toughest player to guard in the NBA because of his ability to hit three-pointers, get to the rim off the dribble, and, perhaps most importantly, draw fouls at a league-best rate.

This season, Harden is averaging an NBA-best 9.3 free throw attempts, making a league-leading 8.1 per game. He has attempted more than 120 more free throws than the next closest player.

In Lee Jenkins’ profile of Harden on Sports Illustrated, he describes how when Harden began playing high school basketball, he was mainly a spot-up shooter, not the unguardable slasher he is today. To bring out the aggressiveness in Harden’s game, his high school coach Scott Pera began challenging Harden with a strange bet:

To turn Harden from a sniper into a driver, Pera put him through daily X-out drills, in which Harden had to convert eight straight layups while Pera punished him with an arm pad. They made a standing bet: If Harden shot more than six free throws in a game, Pera owed him a hamburger; if Harden shot fewer than six, he owed Pera sprints. Harden discovered ways to contort his limbs through and around defenders, collecting whistles and patties.

Harden’s high free throw rate is the result of highly efficient drives. According to NBA.com/Stats, Harden has an NBA-best 401 points on drives throughout the season. He’s also third in the NBA in points per game on drives at 7.7 per game.

Harden has a bunch of different of moves around the basket. He encourages fouls by stretching his arms out, extending the ball to defenders who often swipe at it and foul him instead:

His Eurostep often gets him open baskets, but he also uses it to barrel into defenders and draw fouls:

As Jenkins points out, Harden’s game perfectly fits the prototype of what modern NBA offenses look like. He ignores midrange jumpers, takes three-pointers, gets to the basket, and draws a ton of fouls.

Harden is just 25 and having the best year of his career. His ability to score easily and efficiently is almost mechanical, and it may only get more dangerous as he continues into his prime.

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