The Phoenix Suns of 2013-14 seem like far longer ago than just a couple of years. With 48 wins behind Most Improved Player Goran Dragic, they were the NBA’s breakout story in playoff pursuit, leaping from just 25 wins the season before.
Since then, the Suns have done nothing but decline, falling to 39 wins in 2014-15 and 25 last season. They’re heading toward something similar this year, with their ceiling being around the fourth worst team in the Western Conference. That’s how much can change in a few years in the NBA.
The glistening light on the horizon, though, next to the beaming savior of Phoenix that is Devin Booker, is a host of young talent.
In two lottery picks in this year’s draft after a trade with the Sacramento Kings, they landed Dragan Bender at No. 4 and Marquese Chriss at No. 8, giving them two talented, super-high upside big men to develop. They’re regarded by many as the bigs from this draft class with the most potential altogether, and the Suns have both to add into what is otherwise a fairly shallow frontcourt (and some small forward for Bender).
Along with other forwards who will play at the four such as T.J. Warren and most notably the starting power forward Jared Dudley, the Suns have been using Chriss and Bender in the preseason, or sometimes together to go with a young, slender lineup that really hints at the future of the franchise.
But, more so than Bender, at least right now, Chriss looks ready to start earning some decent minutes fairly early in the season. Because for a young team like the Suns who aren’t going anywhere near the playoffs this year, what have they got to lose by letting young guys develop faster with real game experience?
Even though Chriss is a mere 19 years old and far from his the peak of his physical development, owning a fluid, 6’10” frame that will take time to bulk out, Chriss has a fuller build than Bender at this point. Chriss has work to do, but especially for a 19-year-old, he isn’t frail, and he has a solid stature to start his career with. He’s moving well, too, attacking the offensive glass, running the floor instinctively, and looking for chances to roll to the rim and use his aerial prowess.
Like any player his age, as a power forward, in particular, Chriss will need time to be at a point where he can consistently hold his own against opposing big men inside, fight through contact for rebounds and hold opponents away in the post. He’s shown impressive confidence and aggression, though, and almost surprising strength for such a young, springy athlete.
Just look at this fade away score on Andrew Bogut from Chriss:
Is it the smoothest effort to back down an opponent and hit a turning jump you’ve seen? No, of course not. But Chriss just about held his own against one of the top defensive centers in the NBA and flashed the room for him to grow with this level of initial fluidity and shooting touch. He also made three three-pointers this game and didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger with his soft, high-arching shot.
Bender, meanwhile, is likely going to be more susceptible to plays like this, easily being backed down by Dirk Nowitzki (a finesse player who’s not exactly in his physical prime at 39 years old). Starting only a step or two inside the arc, Dirk effortlessly sends Bender back towards the low block for a far closer, easier shot:
Against the Marc Gasols and Andre Drummonds of the world, it’s clear why Bender is going to be spending some minutes at small forward, showcasing his fluidity, shooting stroke and passing flare from the perimeter instead of banging inside.
Through the preseason, Chriss ranked third among all rookies in scoring and second in rebounding with 12.2 points and 5.5 boards per game (2.3 offensive — defensive rebounding is a real weakness right now), maintaining efficiency as well with 46.8 percent shooting and a 37.5 percent three-point shot (0.5 makes a night). He’s also added 1.7 steals and a block to that stat line.
A growing offensive IQ has been on show. On this possession during Chriss’ 16-point, eight-rebound (four offensive) performance in 25 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers, he initially started by popping out to the three-point line. When he saw the defense was contesting Brandon Knight in the lane, Chriss opted to dive down (as he can do in an instant with his long strides and bounding explosiveness), grab the ball and finish with a strong dunk:
Chriss set a weak pick and wasn’t able to draw any contact from Knight’s defender Shabazz Napier, which led to Knight’s drive being so well contested. It’s something Chriss has plenty of time to work on, of course, and the read to roll to the rim shows how he’s starting to survey the game.
As for the next score, Chriss simply shows off how well he moves for a 6’10” power forward. He knows he can take slower bigs off the dribble, and he puts his foot speed and impressive body control to good use here with a controlled spin move, having an easier time finishing at the rim thanks to his bounce and 7’0″ wingspan to reach over Mason Plumlee:
Of course, this is preseason. Chriss won’t be playing the same 25.4 minutes per game (third among rookies) in the regular season, and he isn’t necessarily going to stay so effective from three, boasting a percentage higher than that of sharpshooter Buddy Hield (28.6).
Perhaps 15 minutes a night for Chriss would be more appropriate early on, and Suns coach Earl Watson can adjust his playing time accordingly to how he continues to play.
Possibly the biggest issue with Chriss, as you’d expect from such a raw player of his age, is defensive IQ. Knowing where to position himself on defense and knowing when to hold back his arms and avoid flailing fouls will be vital to him simply staying on the court before fouling out; he had four or more fouls in six preseason games and fouled out twice. That was an issue for him through college, too.
But Chriss is showing that he isn’t too far away from contributing after doing so in these initial stages, even though there will be plenty of lowlights and learning-curve moments in store. There’s no reason not to give him a chance to further his confident aggression into meaningful games that can help his development far more than constantly riding the bench for the sake of pursuing a few more veteran-led wins.
Through those lowlights and the ones still to come, though, the Suns and their fans got a promising preseason with flashes of his potential.
From his aggressive put-backs, confident release on threes, to calmly shoving away Bogut when they got tangled up after a possession, Chriss has shown his veteran teammates that he won’t back down as one of the youngest players in the league.
Eric Bledsoe says Chriss is already setting the tone correctly, per Paul Coro of AZ Central Sports:
“‘Quese has to show that he ain’t scared. Once one of those players or a veteran player feels like he got fear in you, as a young player, it will ride you for the rest of your career. ‘Quese is setting the tone early.”
The D-League may call, and that’s often a great choice of experience for a raw rookie. But as the Suns wait to reach their brighter future, why not give Chriss a chance to compete against tougher competition and develop by acclimatizing at the highest level of experience?
If the aggression and confidence he’s shown so far is anything to go by, he’s ready for just that.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference.