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Whether you think James Harden a legitimate star or a bit of a ball hog, there’s no one fact: he simply knows how to score. During his time in the NBA, the Houston Rockets guard has emerged as an offensive dynamo; whether he’s driving to the rim or shooting free throws, you know he’ll end the game with plenty of points to his name. That skill set, however, developed in a unique way.

James Harden, it turns out, wasn’t always the player he is today. Everything changed in high school, though, when he started shooting free throws to earn free hamburgers.

James Harden’s rise to NBA prominence

While we all know James Harden as a bearded NBA star, his basketball career didn’t start in the pros. The guard played his college ball at Arizona State, where he made a name for himself in the Pac-10.

While the Sun Devils failed to make the NCAA Tournament in Harden’s freshman season, he still had a strong season from an individual perspective. The guard averaged 17.8 points, 5.3 assists, and 3.2 assists per outing, earning a place on the all-conference team. As a sophomore, he improved across the board; Arizona State qualified for March Madness, and Harden took home both Pac-10 Player of the Year and consensus First-Team All-American honors.

On the back of that campaign, Harden entered into the 2009 NBA draft; the Oklahoma City Thunder selected him with the third-overall pick. While he showed plenty of potential, the guard wasn’t the scoring threat we know today. As a rookie, he didn’t start a single game and averaged 9.9 points per outing.

Harden, however, continued to improve, and, claimed the 2011-12 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award. After that, he joined the Houston Rockets; without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook dominating the spotlight, the guard developed into the dominant scorer and MVP-quality player he is today.

Hamburgers helped make James Harden the player he is today

In the NBA, James Harden’s offensive game is built around isolation sets, driving to the rim, and converting free throws. In high school, however, he possessed a much different skill set.

When he arrived at Artesia High School, Harden didn’t do much besides shoot jump shots. “I just stood in the corner,” he explained to Lee Jenkins in a 2015 Sports Illustrated feature. “I didn’t dribble. I didn’t move. I didn’t do anything. I was lazy, really lazy.”

Head coach Scott Pera, however, knew Harden had potential. He began pushing the guard to drive to the rim; while there were plenty of drills, Pera and Harden also made a deal. If Harden shot more than six free throws in a game, Pera owed him a hamburger,” Jenkins explained. “If Harden shot fewer than six, he owed Pera sprints. Harden discovered ways to contort his limbs through and around defenders, collecting whistles and patties.”

That skill set is still at the heart of Harden’s game

With the Houston Rockets, James Harden has developed into one of the NBA’s elite scorers. When you look at the guard’s offensive skill set, Pera’s impact is quite evident.

While Harden still takes plenty of three-pointers, he’s become incredibly adept at driving to the rim and drawing fouls. Before the NBA suspended the 2019-20 season, the guard was averaging 34.4 points and 11.8 free throws per outing; while no one is buying tickets to see Harden march to the line, those points are just as valuable as a jumper or slam dunk.

Thanks to his offensive talents, Harden has earned a little more than $185 million in NBA salary; according to Spotrac’s contract data, he’ll have taken home more than $318 million by the end of the 2022-23 campaign. That’s more than enough to buy plenty of hamburgers.

Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference and Basketball-Reference