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ASU’s 50 Best Professional Athletes No. 4: Basketball’s James Harden

Before he was The Beard, he was a Sun Devil.

Pac-10 Tournament: Arizona State Sun Devils v Arizona Wildcats Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

This NBA All-Star needs no further introduction other than: The Beard.

Before he was racking up points and drawing fouls on any NBA player who dared to reach for the ball, James Harden led Arizona State to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the furthest any Sun Devil team had gone in the Big Dance since 2003.

After averaging 20.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists as a sophomore, Harden was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American. Following the loss to Syracuse in the second round of the Tournament, Harden declared for the 2009 NBA Draft.

The Oklahoma City Thunder selected Harden third overall, making him the first player to be drafted to the franchise following its departure from Seattle.

For three seasons, Harden was a sixth-man star and third fiddle to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. In 2012, Harden won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award and helped get Oklahoma City to the NBA Finals, where the Thunder lost in five games to the Miami Heat.

Following that season, the Thunder and Harden failed to come to terms on an extension. He was subsequently traded to the Houston Rockets and instantly became an offensive star. In the season opener and his Rockets debut, Harden dropped 37 points, 12 assists, and six rebounds. The 37 points tied the NBA record for most in a debut for a new team.

Later that year, Harden broke Moses Malone’s record for most consecutive games with over 25 points when reached the mark for the 14th consecutive time in a game against the New Orleans Hornets. Harden was named to the All-NBA Third Team and to his first All Star game.

When Dwight Howard joined the Rockets for the 2013-14 season, Harden upped his game as well, averaging 26.8 points and 5.8 assists per game en route to his first All-NBA First Team appearance.

The 2014-15 season brought the most team success for Harden since leaving Oklahoma City. Averaging 27.4 points and seven assists per game, Harden finished second in Most Valuable Player voting behind Steph Curry but was named MVP in the inaugural National Basketball Player’s Association awards. Regularly (and fairly) accused of slacking on defense, Harden actually posted the best defensive rating of his career that season at 103, according to basketball-reference.com.

Harden spearheaded his team toward a second seed in the Western Conference, and after leading an improbable comeback against the Los Angeles Clippers, he faced off against Curry and the Golden State Warriors. He and the Rockets pushed Golden State to a Game 7, but Harden’s NBA playoff-record 12 turnovers led to Houston’s demise to the eventual NBA champs.

Following the success of that season, Harden chose to leave Nike and signed a 13-year, $200 million contract with adidas. Harden will debut his signature shoe for the 2016-17 season, and he has already earned himself a name-check in a Kanye West song.

The 2015-16 season did anything but match the previous season’s success, but still, Harden posted 29 points per game and joined Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only players to average that many points in a season while also racking up seven assists and six boards per game.

Harden signed a four-year extension with the Rockets in July, and with Mike D’Antoni at the helm, the former Sun Devil should be a joy to watch on the offensive end.

Check back tomorrow to see who will be No. 3 in our countdown of the 50 best ASU professionals.