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Then-player Earl Watson told Thunder to draft former ASU star James Harden

It’s not that then-backup point guard Earl Watson had any say in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s final draft pick back in 2009.

It’s just that, through coincidence or because he made a few good points, the Thunder drafted the man Watson believed in.

Oklahoma City owned the third overall pick in the 2009 draft, just after Watson’s final year playing for the franchise. But leading into the draft, general manager Sam Presti asked Watson who he liked in the upcoming draft. In front of team scouts, Watson vouched for a sophomore Arizona State guard who played his high school ball in Los Angeles.

“I told ’em, ‘James Harden,'” Watson said Monday before his Suns faced Harden and the Houston Rockets for the second time in less than a week. “And the scouts … they had a lot of verbal-nonverbal reactions, body language, and like ‘uh,’ gasping. It was like, you said the same thing about Russ last year.”

Watson was no scout to be sure. He was familiar with 2008 draft pick Russell Westbrook and Harden because, as teenagers, the two guards crossed paths with Watson, who was playing at UCLA. But Watson saw something in each — the potential for greatness.

And where the scouts may have had apprehensions, they either came around or Presti, who made the final call, didn’t agree.

“He’s special,” Watson said of Harden on Monday. “He never speeds up, he can score, he can handle the ball, he can pass, he can run the pick-and-roll.”

Those abilities only became more pronounced when Harden went from sixth man, playing behind Westbrook and Kevin Durant with the Thunder, to the leader in Houston.

Two years ago, Harden averaged 29 points and 7.5 assists for a Rockets team considered a contender. He was right in the MVP conversation.

But Harden has been even more impressive this year after first-year coach and former Suns head man Mike D’Antoni moved the 6-foot-5 shooting guard to point guard full time.

Harden is averaging 27.4 points (fifth in the NBA) and 11.9 assists (first) per game.

“If you follow James throughout the summer, you understand he plays the point at pickup, he plays the point in the Drew League. He’s just playing the way he plays in the summer time,” Watson said. “I just call that playing at peace. He just has a high basketball IQ and he’s mastering the pick-and-roll.”

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