On television, a show that’s getting significantly better after an awkward start is said to be growing its beard, as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s coming of age happily coincides with Jonathan Frakes’ William Riker sporting some solid facial hair.
Perhaps the most literal interpretation of this in the sports world is superstar James Harden, whose beard has become one of the most iconic looks not just in basketball but in all sports.
Harden, who joined the league fresh from Arizona with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009, hasn’t had a particularly impressive Santa beard. He had facial hair, yes, but it was hardly the signature mane NBA fans are familiar with today.
The 76ers Guard has seen several different looks over the years, each accompanying a different era of the game.
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Here’s a quick look at Harden through the years and what different beards meant for different parts of his career.
James Harden College with Arizona State: No beard
It’s best to start at the beginning. Arizona State James Harden looked completely different than what NBA fans are used to seeing today.
He had what one would liberally call stubble. But make no mistake. Bart or not, Harden could play. In his second season with the Sun Devils, he averaged 20 points per game before being officially drafted third overall by the Thunder in the 2009 NBA draft.
James Harden Rookie Season with Thunder: The 5 O’clock Shadow Beard
Harden came into the league with a very different look than he has now. True, he had beginnings of a beard, but it was just coming and was hardly a stylistic choice. It just looked like he decided to let it grow a bit.
This was Harden’s roleplaying stint on a Thunder team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He was averaging under 10 points per game in just over 20 minutes per game as a rookie. His beard matched his role at the time. Small but with potential.
James Harden Season 2 with Thunder: Mature Beard
Harden’s beard got some volume over the course of his Thunder career, and look at how happy he is about it.
The Thunder started taking advantage of Harden throughout his career there, or at least his potential, while being overshadowed by two superstars. He averaged double digits in the years following his rookie year, including a 2011 season in which he shot 39 percent from three and showed his potential there.
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James Harden NBA Finals 2012 with Thunder: The Signature Beard
Even in this second Thunder photo, you can see how square Harden’s jaw was. Not in the fourth year, when Harden’s beard began to become his trademark.
Harden still played third fiddle on the Thunder, and despite the brilliance we would see for years to come, it was clear this wasn’t the place for him. Maybe that’s why he looks dissatisfied here, despite getting a look that will become his entire brand.
Swap from James Harden to Rockets: Fresh face in new location
Harden’s joining the Rockets was a turning point in his career. In his first season in Houston, he averaged 25.9 points per game and became an instant NBA star.
While his beard still had plenty to grow, it was enough for it to become an instantly distinguishable trait among NBA fans. This was also Harden’s most “polished” look, with the haircut to boot.
James Harden MVP Season with Rockets: Beard > Rest of the Face
Bearded Harden was nothing short of a sensation. He had eight years of dominance with the Rockets, and beyond that, he endured in a way many NBA stars didn’t. He has played at least 70 games in seven of those eight dominant years at Houston and 68 in the last.
He averaged more than 30 points per game in 2017, 2018 and 2019, with his performance in 2018 earning him an MVP. Those were, as they say in mob movies, the good years.
James Harden’s final season with Rockets: Groomed yet overgrown
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and Harden’s face clearly shows that this good cause has met its natural end.
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Of course, a dramatic liberty is taken here — Harden doesn’t frown because he’s upset, he frowns because the photographer told him so. This is true, however, as 2019 was Harden’s last full season with the Rockets prior to his November 2020 trade request. The Rockets would eventually acquiesce, leading to…
James Harden with Nets: The Mountain Man Beard
Nets James Harden was arguably the most majestic of them all.
Was the Durant-Kyrie-Irving-Harden experiment a disaster? Absolutely. But look at that beard Harden is sporting. This must have been the point of diminishing returns.
James Harden with 76ers: The Rebound Beard
Finally, we come to today’s Harden, who’s still going strong, although his beard looks a little neater than it was in Brooklyn.
Harden may not be putting up the video game numbers he did in Houston with the Sixers, but he’s slipped into a slightly more deferential role than he has in years past, and it’s worked for him so far. Harden still comes up with stats sometimes, but they might not be what fans are used to.
Ultimately, Harden’s beard is the equivalent of Anthony Davis’ unibrow or Steph Curry’s mouthguard. And although it has looked different over the years, it has always been present. Harden’s chin has really been seen as a fresh-faced Thunder player lately, and he’s never played in the NBA without at least some coverage. It even existed in the state of Arizona.
Harden also has a high bar for cutting.
“Oh yeah, I would cut it,” Harden said in 2022, per Basketball Network. I mean because it’s about to grow back. Yes, if it’s at least $10 million, I’m ‘okay’.”
Harden is still looking for his first NBA championship, and he and the 76ers look like strong contenders here in 2023. If they want to go all the way, he has to keep playing at a high level. And in his mind at least, if that quote is anything, it seems like the source of his power to do so is in his beard.