With Rockets trade, Suns pass on Marquese Chriss’ remaining upside

Sep 5, 2018, 8:19 AM | Updated: 2:13 pm
Phoenix Suns forward Marquese Chriss, front, looks to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets center Nikola...

Phoenix Suns forward Marquese Chriss, front, looks to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, of Serbia, defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

On the night of the 2016 NBA Draft, the Phoenix Suns were taking four separate risks and, by default, jamming them together into one.

They selected Dragan Bender fourth overall, a raw, unique Croatian big who would need time to figure out his offensive skill set and develop a reliable jumper.

They traded up to No. 8 in the draft and picked Marquese Chriss, the draft’s rawest prospect who had to improve his basketball IQ and package his tantalizing athleticism into some type of identity.

By selecting two high-upside players, the Suns already had those two risks. The other two were added on by moving two first-round picks and Bogdan Bogdanovic for Chriss, and in selecting both him and Bender, gambling on the chance they could get top value from the duo despite them playing the same position. Whether the long-term plan was those two starting together or swapping in and out at power forward, the plan undoubtedly failed.

That was locked in when general manager Ryan McDonough dealt Chriss and Brandon Knight to the Houston Rockets for Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton on Aug. 30.

The trade-off in value is the most fascinating aspect of the deal that’s impossible to judge from an outside perspective. Did Houston’s general manager Daryl Morey require Chriss as an add-on? Or was it the other way, with the Suns preferring Melton to Chriss?

The initial and more obvious read is Phoenix simply wanted to move on from Knight and Chriss.

Through two seasons, Chriss gave little encouragement that he was headed toward becoming a positive player on the court, let alone worth a top-10 pick.

He averaged 7.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game through his two Phoenix seasons, failing to separate himself from Bender or any other big on the roster.

On top of his on-the-court development taking rocky turns, Chriss had little red flags pop up, particularly last season.

He showed up out of shape at his second year of Summer League and it clearly affected the way he played in the start of the season. He reportedly had a verbal confrontation with a strength coach that brought on a suspension.

When playing, it didn’t take a body language expert to see when he was letting his emotions get the best of him, and those frustrations were clear when he finished with 20 technicals over his two seasons.

He also admitted to needing to focus more on his own mental health to azcentral’s Scott Bordow after the All-Star break last season, a courageous matter to speak about publicly with a media member but also an indication of where his head was at more than halfway through his second NBA season.

To put it simply, there’s a lot of progress left to turn Chriss into a good NBA basketball player, and the Suns said “no thank you” in attempting to do that.

But with that being said, the Rockets and head coach Mike D’Antoni still have plenty to work with in Chriss. After all, he recently turned 21 years old in July, was always going to be a project and Houston is a much better situation.

If there was a play to show his talent, it was the best of his career, a game-winning rejection of Atlanta Hawks wing Taurean Prince in January.

Focus on where Chriss is as soon as he realizes he’s out of position and how much ground he makes up in such a short amount of time.

Yes, the hops, but how about the closing speed?

In Houston, Chriss will assumingly spend time on the floor as a center with either Chris Paul or James Harden — two of the five best passers on the planet — and shooting.

It’s not terribly difficult to envision a productive offensive role coming from that.

Chriss needs to be an active body, using that aforementioned speed, but put shooters in the corners and no one can recover quickly enough on him at the rim for a lob.

On the weak-side corner, Draymond Green lunges toward the play to recover but Chriss is so quick it’s too late.

That two-man game in the middle is consistently possible in Houston, as Rockets fans might find that possession familiar with Clint Capela’s work.

Chriss won’t have to do anything as an individual scorer in Houston, and backing up Capela in a similar role, he won’t likely be asked to shoot that much, either. That’s a positive, as Chriss is a career 30.9 percent three-point shooter who hit only 34.8 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts.

Defensively is where the work is really going to have to come.

Despite two seasons full of playing time, Chriss’ instincts and effort are still coming along, and that’s a big point of pause if he’s going to play a full-time center spot for Houston.

He switches onto Bogdanovic here, but hopping out to get in his stance allows Bogdanovic to get all the way to the rim despite the rough angle to the rim.

Willie Cauley-Stein simply decides he’s going to seal off Chriss here in semi-transition and draw a foul.

The movement, in particular, has been at least improving.

The biggest challenge for younger players is not being a full step out of position, let alone half-a-step, and battling that balance in their off-ball assignments.

Watch Chriss’ block here, sure, but notice how he floats away from being inside the lane back to his man — despite the ball coming directly at him — before coming back to make the play.

If Chriss can get down the basics of team defense and become a rim-runner on offense, that’s when he will blossom.

A time-honored tradition of watching Chriss was the, “whoa, he can do that?” play he had every five to six games because of his raw talent.

A face-up, quick two-dribble blow-by from around the elbow? Sure!

How about a one-dribble drive-and-kick to the corner?

That potential has absolutely shown in a Suns uniform, but the Suns didn’t want to wait an extra year or two to be sure they weren’t making a mistake in quitting on him too soon.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that choice by McDonough, but there is a chance that Chriss works out in Houston, a great ecosystem for his skills to succeed in.

What if Chriss could have actually helped the Suns win down the line and they gave him up in this deal for an overpaid stretch four and Melton, a rookie point guard they already passed on at No. 31 to draft Elie Okobo?

That’s another risk to add to the list.

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