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Marquese Chriss is one of West’s most important players rest of season

Phoenix Suns forward Marquese Chriss (0) dunks over Los Angeles Lakers center Tarik Black (28) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The Phoenix Suns are not making the playoffs, and that concept seems to have been acknowledged — at least in part — by the organization’s desire to get a closer look at its younger players over the season’s final stretch of games.

The youth movement, which GM Ryan McDonough talked about and head coach Earl Watson explained, is really quite understandable.

At 18-41 the Suns are not in position to think about the postseason, therefore it makes sense to start focusing on next year. It is with that in mind Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer lists rookie Marquese Chriss as one of the 15 most important Western Conference players for the rest of the season.

Chriss is difficult to figure out. On one hand, he is already a ferocious scorer in transition capable of wreaking havoc like this:

On the other hand, Chriss scores 0.8 points per possession in the half court, per Synergy, which ranks 291st of 354 players with at least 100 logged possessions. Chriss often looks lost when he isn’t able to run freely and let his athleticism do all the work for him. He sets frail screens, hasn’t shot the ball well, and lacks passing instincts. Though Chriss’s chase-down blocks channel LeBron’s, his defensive effort and awareness is shoddy. It’s hard to rely on him when he commits too many careless fouls. Chriss doesn’t offer much of anything offensively other than making sexy highlights. Then again, the Washington product is still a teenager. What could anyone expect? Chriss was the high-risk, high-reward grand slam swing of the 2016 draft lottery, so lumps were anticipated.

Chriss’s minutes have increased each month of the season and should continue to as the season nears the finish line. With amplified opportunity, and more flashes of greatness like his 27-point performance earlier this month against the Bucks, the Suns’ future could look a whole lot brighter heading into the summer. “He has a unique gift,” Phoenix head coach Earl Watson told me last month. “It’s time for him to take that next step in February, March, and April just like did Devin [Booker] did last year.”

Chriss was the second of Phoenix’s two lottery picks this year, with the first, Dragan Bender, seeing inconsistent minutes before requiring surgery for an ankle injury. There is a chance he may get back on the floor before the season ends, but for now, Chriss’ development will be one of the most interesting things to watch.

As O’Connor noted, the 6-foot-10, 233-pound high-flyer flashes outstanding athleticism, but as a basketball player still needs some refinement.

Since erupting for 27 points against the Bucks on Feb. 4, Chriss has scored in double figures just twice in eight games. On the season he is averaging 7.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, but is also committing 3.1 fouls per outing. Sunday in Milwaukee, he scored eight points on 4-of-8 shooting but picked up four fouls in just 16 minutes.

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