When you think of Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, the images that initially come to mind range anywhere from five-time NBA champion to uber-competitive gunner with extreme confidence – sometimes to a fault.
But what many don’t remember is Bryant as a young, talented guard out of high school that had to sit and learn behind Eddie Jones for a couple seasons before becoming the player he is today. Once you take away the lengthy resume and career accolades that Bryant has compiled and focus on his earlier stages of development, it makes comparing him to players in today’s NBA more realistic.
One player that compares quite favorably to Bryant over the first four years of their careers is none other than Houston Rockets star James Harden. Upon initially reading that statement, Lakers fans might think it’s too far-fetched to even consider. But when you separate Kobe’s vast accomplishments and focus more on his early years, the comparison becomes more relevant.
We’ll start by observing their physical similarities. When he was drafted out of high school in 1996, Bryant was a 6’6”, 200-lb rail-thin guard with a 38” vertical and a standing reach of 8’10”. Harden measures a tad bit shorter at 6’5.25” and a reach of 8’7.5”, and heavier at 222-lbs, but he produced a 37” vertical at the draft combine in 2009 (per draftexpress.com). The measurable are far from identical, but for comparison sake they’re close enough.
But where the comparison really gets intriguing is when you compare their production through the first four years of their career (we’ll use just four, as Harden only has four years of NBA experience under his belt compared to Kobe’s 18).
Both Bryant and Harden began their careers off the bench, and both moved into a primary sixth man role in their second seasons. Harden didn’t advance to a full-time starter until his fourth year while Kobe was granted the starting role in his third, but that doesn’t have as big a factor on the numbers as one would assume.
Using basketball-reference.com’s player index to compare the players’ careers through four seasons, you find that their per-game averages are almost mirror images of each other. Bryant was on the floor for an average of 28.5 minutes per game from 1996-2000; Harden played an average of 29.7. Through four seasons Bryant sported a field goal percentage of .450 on 3,297 shot attempts; Harden connected on .441 of his 3,228 field goals attempts.
Bryant’s per game averages through four seasons are 15.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg and 3.0 apg. Harden’s through four seasons? A near-carbon copy stat line of 16.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, and 3.3 apg.
If you expand the comparison to advanced statistics, you see much of the same trend. Bryant’s player efficiency rating through four seasons was 19.1. Harden has racked up a PER of 19.2 through his first four years of NBA service. Even their total rebounding percentages (7.8% for Bryant and 7.3% for Harden), assist percentage (18.2% for Bryant; 18.5% for Harden) steals percentage (2.1% for Bryant; 2.2% for Harden) are near identical.
Expand the comparison to playoff production, and the story is much of the same. Here’s Bryant’s full playoff stat line through four seasons:
50 games played, 30.5 min, .430 FG, 3.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.1 spg, 2.2 TO, 15.9 ppg, 17.7 PER
Now look at Harden’s playoff averages through four seasons:
49 games played, 31.2 min, .433 FG, 5.1 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.4 spg, 2.0 TO, 15.3 ppg, 19.9 PER
One could argue that Harden has been the better player in the playoffs through four seasons than Bryant, but Kobe won a ring his fourth season, so that quantifies any slight statistical edge Harden may have as a wash. There are other slight differences between the two players; for instance, Harden has been the better three-point shooter than Bryant (.370 to .331, respectively) and Harden is more adept at getting to the free-throw line (7.1 attempts per 36 minutes to 6.3 attempts for Bryant). These differences are only marginal, at best.
Again, this comparison is just from a statistical standpoint. We have yet to see a player that can match Kobe’s legendary work ethic and will to succeed, and we probably never will. Plus, Bryant was an All-Defensive first team selection by his fourth season,whereas Harden’s defensive prowess is still in question. But, Harden’s statistical output to this point in his career is the closest we’ve seen to Bryant and is worth noting.
Will James Harden eventually be the next Kobe Bryant? Probably not, but he’s on pace to come a lot closer than many would think.