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Harden leaves ASU for the NBA

Sophomore guard James Harden, with his mother, Monja Willis, declares that he will be entering the NBA draft during a press conference at Wells Fargo Arena on Wednesday. (Matt Pavelek | The State Press)

In a crisp white shirt and tie sitting next to his mom, James Harden uttered the words Sun Devil fans have long feared to hear.

“I’ve decided to declare for the NBA draft,” the sophomore said. “My intentions are to hire an agent in the next couple days or weeks.”

Out the door goes the reigning Pac-10 Conference player of the year and ASU’s first Associated Press first-team All-American. With him goes the end of an era.

Harden said he made the unorthodox decision to attend ASU because he wanted to leave a stamp on a program. In his two years under coach Herb Sendek, Harden certainly did that.

For the first few minutes of Harden’s press conference Wednesday, Sendek couldn’t help but smile. Though his best player is leaving him, Sendek said there was nothing bittersweet about Harden’s declaration.

“It’s all sweet,” Sendek said. “As much as we would love to have him next year, the year after, the year after that and the year after that, it would really be disingenuous and selfish of us to allow any bitterness creep into this moment.”

In mere months, Harden will be sporting an NBA uniform, playing and seeing plenty of zeroes in his bank account — the good kind of zeroes.

Harden’s mother, Monja Willis, said Harden told her in middle school that he would be an NBA player. Back then, Harden was spending lots of time after school playing on the hoop in his uncle’s driveway.

Desade DeJanette, Harden’s uncle, was never hard to spot during the past two seasons of ASU men’s basketball. He was always sporting a No. 13 jersey with “Harden’s Unc” written across the back. DeJanette was always with Willis, too, as they witnessed every one of Harden’s games this year.

With the exception of the final pair of contests in Miami, DeJanette and Willis made the drive from Los Angeles to wherever ASU was playing.

DeJanette said he still remembers when Harden used to challenge him to play one-on-one.

“I was too old for that,” DeJanette said with a laugh. “I know where I belong. Twenty years ago? Yeah, I would have taken him on out there.”

A street-ball veteran of Los Angeles, DeJanette said he couldn’t believe his nephew had gone from playing in the driveway to the brink of the NBA in such a short time.

“This is not happening,” DeJanette said. “This is surreal. I mean, come on.”

Harden said he made his decision within the past few days. Over the weekend, he spent time in Detroit for the Final Four and talked to a few other of the nation’s premier underclassmen to see if they would leave early, too.

Namely, he spoke to close friend Jonny Flynn, along with Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin, DeJuan Blair and Jeff Teague. Despite pundits’ labeling this year’s draft class as weak, Harden said he thinks it will be strong. Regardless of the competition, Harden said he knows when he will get picked.

“No. 1,” Harden said. “Nah, I’m joking. … There’s a lot of great players, like I said. The workouts are going to prove it, and I’m going to have to be ready for everything that comes my way.”

One of the most common praises of Harden’s game is that he never forces anything and lets the game come to him. DeJanette said Harden is same way off the court.

“He’s made some great decisions for a youngster,” DeJanette said. “It’s been a blessing, this whole thing is surreal. You would ask for this, but for it to actually materialize? Wow.”

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