By Brian Trusdell | Aug. 20, 2014, 10:57 a.m. (ET)
James Harden reacts after Paul George was injured during a USA Basketball showcase at the Thomas & Mack Center on Aug. 1, 2014 in Las Vegas.

NEW YORK -- At the London 2012 Olympic Games, James Harden was a bit player. Two years later, he’s poised to be a big part of any title aspirations for the U.S. men’s basketball team at the FIBA World Cup in Spain.

A combination of experience, maturity and player defections have vaulted the 6-foot-5 Harden from someone who had the second fewest minutes on the U.S. team at the 2012 Games into a leadership role as the squad gets set to head to the basketball championship, which begins Aug 30.

“For him, there is a trust now,” said retired seven-time NBA All-Star Grant Hill, who was a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic gold medal team and now is an analyst with Turner Sports and NBA TV. “He understands Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski). He’s been there. He’s been there with other players, who are great players. So he’s going to play a pivotal role, I think, on this team as a guy who provides leadership.

“He also can give you that scoring. You miss (Kevin) Durant. These guys out here are more than capable, but he’s a guy that, when you need a basket, or you need a play, he can get it done.”

At 24, Harden already is a five-year NBA veteran and two-time All-Star. With the absences of 2012 Olympic stars Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, an injury to Paul George and the withdrawal of Durant from the team, Harden has emerged as a fulcrum on which the team will be balanced.

“James has been as good a leader as we’ve had for this team,” Krzyzewski said. “He has a great personality. He’s an upbeat guy, smart and obviously very, very talented. With this group, especially after Kevin (Durant) left, he has asserted himself even more.

“As an older guy, I know him, he knows me, because we’ve worked together. He’s really one of our key guys.”

Harden had the most minutes (28:42) for the U.S. team in Saturday’s 95-78 exhibition victory over World Cup medal hopeful Brazil in Chicago, scoring a second-best 18 points.

He’s likely to see a lot more in Wednesday’s exhibition against the Dominican Republic and Friday’s game against Puerto Rico, both at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and when the team reaches Spain for the World Cup (the tournament was previously called the world championship).

Harden sees his past two seasons with the Houston Rockets as the keystone of his arrival at this moment. After playing three seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder and joining forces with Durant and Russell Westbrook to help the team to the 2012 NBA Finals, Harden was traded to Houston, where he has led the team in scoring the past two seasons.

“I think the past couple of years, I’ve prepared myself for this situation,” Harden said. “Basically, having to lead the team in the Rockets, obviously we have a lot of all-stars on this team, which is going to make my job a lot easier, but it’s just playing on both ends of the floor at a high level.”

It’s a different atmosphere from two years ago, when Harden played in all eight games at the Olympic Games but averaged less than 10 minutes and 5.5 points per game.

“Totally different. Totally different role for me. Me and Anthony Davis,” Harden said, referring to New Orleans Pelicans center Davis, who also was a 2012 Olympian. “We really didn’t play in 2012 in London. We learned a lot from those guys. Now we’re going to be playing heavy minutes. Just take what we learned in London and bringing it here. Just trying to be a leader. Make sure I’m talking every day, making sure my mind is right in every single practice and every single game.”

It’s a role Harden is demonstrably taking seriously, staying well after many of his teammates had left or stopped practicing on Tuesday to take extra perimeter shooting by himself.

“I think he’s matured a lot,” said Hill, who sees the combination of Harden’s near-miss title run with the Thunder, his Olympic experience and then his move to Houston as the elements that have refined the Los Angeles native. “I think he really took those experiences and now, being the guy the last two years, has really elevated his play.”

Brian Trusdell is a writer from New Jersey. He has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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