OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)—Thanks to some advice from his mother that stuck with him through the years, James Harden found himself standing beside two Oklahoma City Thunder teammates Saturday with his brand new jersey in hand.
Harden held up his uniform with the number 13—his lucky number since he wore it as the only freshman on his high school team—as he, center B.J. Mullens and swingman Robert Vaden were introduced to fans in their new NBA home for the first time.
“It’s finally here. It’s just a great moment,” said Harden, the former Arizona State guard who was taken third overall in Thursday night’s draft. “You work so hard and you put so much extra time just to get to this point. So many people wish they were in our positions right now. It just feels great to finally be here, and now the dream begins.”
Harden didn’t really think he was NBA-bound until he started creating some buzz as a freshman in college. He credits his mother for reminding him that “there’s always somebody out there better than you,” advice that helped keep his head on straight.
“That keeps me humble. That keeps me stable,” Harden said. “I think coming into this program, all the guys here are in the same situation I am as far as being humble and stable, and they’re young as well. I feel that I can come in here and learn from those guys and all grow together.”
Joining a team coming off a 23-59 season, Harden said he’s most excited about the Thunder’s youth. He’s only 19 years old, while cornerstones Kevin Durantand Russell Westbrook are 20. All told, eight of the players who’ll be back from last season’s roster are 25 or younger—and that doesn’t count the three draft picks.
“I know it’s a young team. I could come in and I could definitely play a lot of minutes, or whatever the case might be,” said Mullens, a 20-year-old who went with the 24th pick before getting traded to the Thunder. “The only thing that I can control is how hard I work every day, how hard I want it and just getting better and making my teammates better. So, that’s what I want to do.”
Harden enters a competition for the starting spot at shooting guard with Thabo Sefolosha, who took over the role after coming over in a February trade with the Chicago Bulls. Harden led the Pac-10 with 20.1 points per game last season and averaged 4.2 assists.
“I don’t want to just label myself as just a scorer, because they already have that here,” Harden said, referring to Durant. “I want to be a facilitator. When the shot’s there, take it. But other than that, come in here and be a facilitator and play hard.”
Mullens, who will wear No. 23, and Vaden (30) could provide help at two positions where Oklahoma City could lose depth if they don’t re-sign swingman Desmond Mason or center Robert Swift next month.
Mullens, a 7-footer from Ohio State, could turn into a backup for center Nenad Krstic and allow Nick Collison to move back to his more natural power forward position. In Vaden, the Thunder get a 38 percent 3-point shooter in college who could improve one of the NBA’s worst perimeter shooting teams.
“I know you’re not supposed to talk yourself up a lot, but I really feel like I was just as good as a lot of players in this draft, even in the first round,” said Vaden, who finished his career at Alabama-Birmingham after two seasons at Indiana. “But you can’t dwell on things in the past. I’m just excited about the opportunity that Oklahoma (City) gives me, and I’ve got the opportunity to show everybody what I have.”
Thunder players Jeff Green, Kyle Weaver, Serge Ibaka and D.J. White— Vaden’s former college roommate at Indiana—showed up to greet their new teammates.
“We’re very excited about all three of our guys. Thursday night was a great night for us,” coach Scott Brooks said. “One of the things that we value is high character, and we all agree on that. They’re hardworking guys, they’re going to add to our team. We’re a team that is getting better.”