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Lowe: Former Suns big Marquese Chriss found his role with Warriors

Golden State Warriors forward Marquese Chriss, middle, is defended by Miami Heat guard Duncan Robinson, right, and forward Jimmy Butler (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Former Phoenix Suns big man Marquese Chriss embodies the problems that the team faced in the Ryan McDonough era.

They drafted one-and-done prospects and in the case of Chriss’ 2016 lottery-mate Dragan Bender, players who were even younger. Those players suited up for a rotation of Suns head coaches and in a culture where any flaws were exposed.

Bender’s lack of confidence, Chriss’ emotional highs and lows, and Josh Jackson’s immaturity only heightened in that environment. All three last year were smacked in the face with the realities of how the rest of the NBA views them, and it appears that Chriss might’ve been the first to come out on the other end cleanly.

He already had a 2018-19 season with the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers that helped him move on from Phoenix. On a struggling Golden State Warriors team this 2019-20 season before it was halted, it appears he finally found himself. ESPN’s Zach Lowe named Chriss to his 2019-20 Luke Walton All-Star Team, “a tribute to guys who fight for their NBA lives before landing in a role that suits them.”

He found himself not playing as the pick-and-pop power forward that the Suns tried to press on him but as a small-ball center.

Chriss has dished 3.4 dimes per 36 minutes, more than double his prior average. He is a canny handoff artist, flipping screens back and forth as his recipient — Damion Lee is a favorite — bobs behind him. He picks out cutters, and whips passes to corner shooters out of the pick-and-roll.

“I was naive,” Chriss said. “I realize now the skill set I have is better for [center].”

Under head coach Earl Watson, Chriss played primarily at power forward in a relatively successful rookie year.

He returned for a second season out of shape and had to fight for trust under interim coach Jay Triano once Watson was fired. By the time Chriss got through Igor Kokoskov’s training camp, he was traded to the Houston Rockets as the Suns opted to roll with Deandre Ayton and Richaun Holmes at center with Ryan Anderson and Bender at power forward.

“I wasn’t having fun [in Phoenix],” he told Lowe. “It got to the point where I dreaded practices.”

After being a late addition to Golden State’s roster, getting cut and then earning a multi-year deal this season, Chriss has a chance to be a rotation piece for a team that next year — whenever that is — should be in playoff contention.

At center, Chriss’ natural feel for the game showed in his high-post passing.

He can use a dribble-handoff, readjust mid-roll and draw a defensive player.

He excelled at slipping the ball on dribble-handoffs to shooters on the move, and that should only boost his assist totals when those recipients are Steph Curry and Klay Thompson instead of Jordan Poole and Lee.

Chriss, however, also finally put his explosive leaping to use, putting gravity on the rim and also showing the ability to catch and make a quick kickout for a three. His assist percentage was 15.3% with Golden State this season but had never fluttered above 8.2% in any other stint with a team.

While he hardly took threes and did so at just a 20% clip this year, Chriss shot 54.5% overall, a near 10% improvement from his previous best mark from his rookie season in Phoenix.

Like Suns second-year center Deandre Ayton, who is just a year younger, the 22-year-old Chriss also finally began to find himself as a rim-protecting menace. Their developmental improvements on defense parallel one another.

Both came into the league far behind regarding the effort required, the devotion and the knowledge to stop drives off the ball, but the two players this suspended season took massive steps forward under stable learning environments. Credit those being fostered respectively by the Suns’ Monty Williams and the Warriors’ Steve Kerr.

Chriss’ block percentage was a career-best 4.7% and had never been above 3.7%. Ayton’s improved from 2.6% in his rookie year to 4.5% in 2019-20.

Chriss and Ayton each held opponents to 54% shooting at the rim, numbers reserved for mostly large men and/or freakish leapers; granted Ayton contested about two more of those shots per game.

More than all that, Chriss did a lot to shed his reputation as an emotionally flammable person on the court.

Back in 2017-18, Triano, while admitting Chriss’ struggles, was the first one to express how good of a kid Chriss was off the court. In Phoenix, criticisms of Chriss’ emotional and lackadaisical play were fair, but that the Suns weren’t capable of building good habits and allowing an already self-aware player work through his issues showed how broken their basketball-learning environment was just a year ago.

Surprise: It turns out it just takes time, the right fit and the right culture to bring NBA-caliber basketball out of such raw draftees.

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