SI cover: The unlikely MVP candidate, James Harden

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Houston Rockets star guard James Harden is recognizable just about anywhere he goes. He is 6’5” -- but what gets most people’s attention is a beard that has become just as well-known as his talents. 

“Sometimes I want to rip it off and be a kid again,” says Harden, who graces Sports Illustrated's national cover this week. Harden, who is profiled by SI senior writer Lee Jenkins, is one of three shooting guards featured in this week's magazine, along with Golden State's Klay Thompson and the Bulls' Jimmy Butler.

Whether Harden ever loses his trademark beard remains to be seen. Until then, Harden will just have to settle for being one of the best players in the NBA.

It took a few years for the 25-year-old Harden to reach star status in the NBA. He was shipped to Houston in 2012 from Oklahoma City, where he spent the first three seasons of his career in a reserve role.

Harden was notoriously known, especially during his first two seasons in Houston, as being aloof, not speaking much after games and providing little insight on the real James Harden.

“I was being lazy, being tired, wanting to go home and relax,” he said. He also became a running joke around the league for his lack of playing defense.

“I put defense on the backburner,” Harden admits now.

Harden is now the focal point of the Houston team, leading the NBA in scoring at 27.4 points a game (on 46 percent shooting). He also averages 6.8 assists and 5.7 rebounds for the Rockets, who entered the All-Star break at 36-17, tied for fourth place in the Western Conference.

Now an Olympic Gold medalist, a three-time All-Star, former NBA Sixth Man of the Year and being named first-team All-NBA last season, Harden is confident about his status in the league.

“I see an opportunity to become one of the best players in the world,” he says. “I could be the best player in the world.”

For more on SI's NBA midseason report, check out this week's Sports Illustrated. (subscribe here)

Subscribers and newsstands in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan will receive the Butler cover.

Subscribers and newsstands in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, California and Arizona will receive the Thompson cover.

2015 Sports Illustrated Covers