Artesia Junior Has Grown Into Game
James Harden was a short, pudgy freshman when he arrived at Lakewood Artesia. He carried an asthma inhaler, had a drawn-out jump shot and seemed apathetic during conditioning drills.
Much has changed in the last 2 1/2 years. Though he still keeps his inhaler nearby, Harden has discarded everything else that impeded his development into a coveted high school basketball prospect.
He is no longer chubby, having grown six inches into his 6-foot-6, 200-pound frame. He also developed a quicker release on his outside shot and discovered the benefits outweigh the pain when working to get into peak shape.
Harden has averaged a team-high 18.9 points and eight rebounds for Artesia, ranked No. 1 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports for most of the season. He has attracted interest from colleges, including written offers from Washington State and Pepperdine.
When the Pioneers play North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake today at noon in the Southern California Regional Division III final at the Sports Arena, Harden will be counted on to lead them to their first state title-game appearance in 11 years. The winner will advance to the state championship game March 18 in Sacramento.
“Personally, I know all the great players who have come through Artesia,” said senior point guard Derek Glasser, “and I think James could be one of, if not the best.”
Among Artesia’s graduates are Jason Kapono, currently a reserve forward for the Miami Heat, and brothers Ed and Charles O’Bannon, who led Artesia to three state titles in the early 1990s before starring at UCLA.
Harden, who grew up in Los Angeles and lives in Carson, didn’t follow Artesia during its heyday in the 1990s, but his family believed the school would provide a better fit socially and athletically than the neighborhood high schools.
His brother, Akili Roberson, was a standout quarterback at L.A. Locke in the early 1990s, but could not accept a scholarship to Nebraska because he did not qualify academically. Roberson went on to play at L.A. Southwest College and Kansas before joining the Arena Football League.
The season before Harden’s arrival, Coach Scott Pera guided the Pioneers to the Southern Section Division III-AA title with a senior-dominated team. With several holes to fill the following season, Harden earned more playing time than Pera would normally award a freshman.
“Here’s this little chunky freshman who shoots the ball from the hip,” Pera said. “He also had a little bit of an attitude.”
Early in his first season, Harden earned additional playing time when a teammate began to struggle. He went five for five from the free-throw line in his first full game and has started ever since. In an enormous confidence booster for Harden, he made a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer in a one-point holiday tournament victory over Venice.
“That turned our season around,” Pera said. “We were, like, 3-5 or 4-6 at the time.”
The Pioneers finished 20-10 that season and advanced to the Division III-AA quarterfinals. The following year, they made it to back to the title game, losing to Santa Margarita before defeating the Eagles five days later in a Southern California Regional semifinal. But the Pioneers played poorly in a 74-48 loss to San Diego St. Augustine in the regional final.
The loss left a bad taste but has provided all the inspiration Harden and his teammates needed this season. They defeated Santa Margarita by 30 points last Saturday in the Division III-AA final, then beat the Eagles again, 50-38, in a regional semifinal Thursday at Artesia.
Harden scored 22 points in both victories and had a hand in limiting Santa Margarita’s James Keefe, a UCLA-bound forward, below his scoring and rebounding averages in both games.
Pera said Harden has the ability to guard the three post positions.
“James offers a variety of things,” Pera said. “He’s just not one-dimensional.”
Pera said Harden’s teammates deserve an assist for giving him the nudge he needed.
“The older guys straightened him out, told him, ‘Quit acting like your hurt and quit dogging the [conditioning drills],’ ” Pera said.
In just over two years, Harden has emerged as the top player on Artesia’s extremely deep team and is mentioned along with the top players in the junior class, including Taylor King of Santa Ana Mater Dei, Drew Viney of Villa Park and Daniel Hackett of Bellflower St. John Bosco.
“As long as my high school team is winning championships and stuff, the names don’t really matter,” Harden said. “As long as my high school team is winning, that’s all I care about.”
Championship games of the Southern California high school regional tournaments:
at Sports Arena
* Division III -- Lakewood Artesia (31-1) vs. North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake (27-5), noon.
* Division II -- Santa Ana Mater Dei (32-2) vs. Villa Park (29-4), 4 p.m.
* Division I -- Los Alamitos (29-4) vs.
Fresno Clovis West (29-2), 8 p.m.
at Cal State Fullerton
* Division V -- San Luis Obispo Mission Prep (34-5) vs. Solana Beach Santa Fe Christian (23-8), 3 p.m.
* Division IV -- Fresno San Joaquin Memorial (33-3) vs. San Diego Horizon (24-3), 7 p.m.
at Sports Arena
* Division III -- La Puente Bishop Amat (33-1) vs. Oakhurst Yosemite (35-2), 10 a.m.
* Division II -- Fullerton Troy (31-1) vs.
Villa Park (31-2), 2 p.m.
* Division I -- Lynwood (27-4) vs.
Long Beach Poly (9-25), 6 p.m.
at Cal State Fullerton
* Division V -- Los Angeles Pacific Hills (29-2) vs. San Luis Obispo Mission Prep (18-9), 1 p.m.
* Division IV -- Los Angeles Windward (28-3) vs. La Jolla Country Day (21-10), 5 p.m.