By Jahmal Corner
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Houston Rockets guard James Harden has evolved into the National Basketball Association's most lethal scorer, his offensive arsenal growing as full as his rampant beard.
Watching Harden attack a defense is a study in variety: there are step-back jumpers, quick dribble drives and frequent trips to the free-throw line.
That formula has made Harden basketball's toughest cover, and launched the shooting guard into a new stratosphere as one of the faces of the NBA.
"He's definitely a tremendous offensive talent," Rockets teammate Trevor Ariza told Reuters following Houston's loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday. "He's someone that can score in a variety of ways and causes a lot of problems."
Harden, 25, has been a headache for opponents all season as he is averaging a league-leading 27.4 points per game.
He enters the NBA's All-Star Weekend, where he will start for the Western Conference on Sunday, with six 40-point games and countless highlight-reel plays.
"There are guys that really step up and have phenomenal years – LeBron has done that (in the past). (Harden) is having a phenomenal year this year," Rockets coach Kevin McHale told Reuters. "We got him from Oklahoma City three years ago and he's just gotten better and better."
When Houston traded for Harden and signed him to a max contract before the 2012-13 season many believed they overpaid.
With the Thunder, Harden had won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award for his play off the bench but showed no definitive signs that he could carry a franchise.
But concerns about Harden's worth have faded quicker than defenders trying to stay in front of him. The Rockets (36-17) are fourth in the West despite playing much of the year without injured big man Dwight Howard.
They can thank their steadily improving shooting guard, who spent his offseason leading the United States to a basketball World Cup title, for that.
The final piece of Harden's expanding puzzle, though, is his defense. It's a subject he has been taunted for in YouTube videos as well as self-effacing commercials.
Harden is taking defense seriously, and hoping to add it to his offensive reputation.
"Being a two-way player and playing on both ends at a high level (is my biggest improvement)," Harden told Reuters. I can't let games where I miss shots affect everything else I do.
"I'm not just a scorer."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)