My first year in the Los Angeles media, one of the first high school games I saw was Artesia vs. Mater Dei. The top 2 teams in the country with two of the best players in the state – James Harden (Artesia) and Taylor King (Mater Dei).
King had been a household name since he committed to UCLA in 8th grade while Harden, then clean-shaven, was a rising recruit who committed to Arizona State after a stellar summer showing and because his old HS coach and point guard were there.
In a standing room only gym in Orange County, I watched both guys rise to incredible levels. I was most impressed by Harden, who showed the smooth skills, scorer’s touch and steady play that would define him. As he, Malik Story and his mates led Artesia to a comeback victory, I knew he’d be a star. It wasn’t that he was unstoppable, it was his maturity and calm to go along with his game that spoke volumes.
I saw Artesia later that year in the Division III state regional championship. Once again, Harden impressed me with how he scored so easily and fluidly. A sophomore named Renardo Sidney also impressed me but his story will be told after the NBA Draft.
Artesia would go on to win the state championship. Harden was the unofficial runner-up to Taylor King in Mr. Basketball, something to this day I kid my colleagues at Cal-Hi Sports on. Both were All-Americans and both played in the McDonald’s game.
While King, a lethal but slow spot-up shooter, fizzled at Duke and Villanova after winning a state title all Harden did was blossom into an All-American and lottery pick by his sophomore year. All while growing a grizzly man beard.
Russell Westbrook was an afterthought by his senior year at Leuzinger. He was barely recruited while he blossomed into was an All-State selection who was maybe going to a mid-major school. According to reports, Kent State had the inside track to him.
Then he got good news. Jordan Farmar was leaving UCLA early and a roster spot was available. Ben Howland’s staff took a chance on him and offered a scholarship. He was a decent player his first year (2006-07) but he didn’t really get much playing time.
As a sophomore was thrust into the starting point guard role when Darren Collison was hurt that summer. Westbrook was more of a shooting guard and I remember my godbrother and I worrying that he couldn’t run point efficiently. Often times he showed his freaky athleticism, a reminder that he could barely dunk until late in high school.
I covered a few of his games and while I saw some confidence, I didn’t see an NBA player just yet or at least a capable point guard. He wasn’t a lethal scorer but he got to the rim very well. He blossomed in the tournament with his athleticism but he was more known for his defense.
When he left after that sophomore year, he was a Pac-10 THIRD team selection and won Defensive Player of the Year. He was arguably the 3rd best player on that UCLA squad behind Kevin Love and Collison in my mind. Then came the pre-NBA Draft workouts and Boom! Hello NBA Lottery.
One of my last stories was seeing him get his jersey retired at Leuzinger four years after he graduated. A tribute to his hard work, success and great coaching.
I first heard about Kawhi Leonard in his junior year due to a tragedy. He was playing in a game at UCLA in 2008 the day after his father was killed. A random shooting at a Compton car wash. He collapsed in his mother’s arms after his team lost to Compton Dominguez and Jordan Hamilton.
I didn’t get to see Riverside King that year but my heart went out to him. I’d get my chance to watch King and Leonard that following spring at the CIF sectional championships. King faced Mater Dei, the No. 1 team in the state that came in undefeated.
Two of Leonard’s friends somehow sat next to me at press row. After several shots, I asked them what motivated Leonard to play so well. They mentioned that he works as hard as anybody, has incredibly large hands and after his father’s murder, it only drove him harder to be the best.
I kept watching as Leonard grabbed rebounds (20 total), blocked shots (six) and scored in spots. Watched as King ran off a 15-0 run in the second half to break the will of a nationally ranked team. And as the buzzer sounded, Leonard immediately hopped a barrier and hugged his mother and family. I knew exactly why.
After the post-game interviews, I was walking back to my chair and Leonard happened to be near me. I congratulated him and when I shook his hand, it almost swallowed mine. King eventually made their way to the state regional final where they lost. But you had to respect how Leonard drove that team with his hustle.
In a stacked year of talent with 4 McDonald's All-Americans (David and Travis Wear [UNC then UCLA], Renardo Sidney [Miss St.], Michael Snaer [Fla St.]), he was named Mr. Basketball and despite being underrated by local/national recruiters, he went to San Diego State.
All Leonard did? As part of a great recruiting class, he helped resurrect the program and was Conf. Freshman of the Year/Tournament MVP as a freshman. In his sophomore year, he led the Aztecs to a Top-10 ranking and the Sweet Sixteen while becoming an All-American.
What do all three have in common? All three didn’t get much notice until their senior year. All three had to work hard to get where they are. Harden was a McDonald’s All-American who thrived at every level. Westbrook had to take advantage of every chance he got, as did Leonard.
(Another irony. They’re probably a part of the last era of guys starring at public schools here in California. In 2009, Leonard’s King squad faced Westchester in that Division I state regional final. Good luck seeing two public schools there in the near or maybe distant future.)
Now all three are on the big stage in the Western Conference Finals. James Harden is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. Russell Westbrook is a two-time All-Star. Kawhi Leonard is an All-Rookie Team selection.
At 20 years old, Leonard has already played big in the first two games, putting up a double-double in Game 2. Westbrook is dancing between being brilliant (postseason numbers: 23.7 points, 4.8 dimes and 1.6 turnovers – 0 in Game 2 and almost none vs. the Lakers), trigger happy (shooting 37.8% vs. the Spurs), and a fashion mystery. Harden lit up the Spurs for 30 points in Game 2, missing three shots.
I’m proud of all three representing the next generation of Southern California basketball in the NBA, just like I'm proud of Klay Thompson, Derrick Williams, Darius Morris and Jordan Hamilton. At least one of the three will make the NBA Finals but for now, I’ll enjoy seeing them do battle in the WCF as long as the Spurs decide to keep toying with the Thunder.