It’s clear Suns rookie Marquese Chriss has the building blocks

Jan 16, 2017, 6:05 AM | Updated: 10:55 pm
Phoenix Suns forward Marquese Chriss (0) tries to shoot past San Antonio Spurs defenders Pau Gasol,...

Phoenix Suns forward Marquese Chriss (0) tries to shoot past San Antonio Spurs defenders Pau Gasol, left, and LaMarcus Aldridge, center, during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016, in San Antonio. San Antonio Spurs won 119-98. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Dissecting rookie forward Marquese Chriss’ development halfway through the Suns’ season comes with a caveat.

That is, his numbers don’t indicate he has taken promising steps forward. If anything, they build a foundation for all the fears about Phoenix taking Chriss eighth overall after trading up in the draft and using the Sacramento Kings’ pick on the 19-year-old out of Washington. Yep, the stats indicate he doesn’t shoot all that well, fouls way too much and doesn’t play defense.

Making this task murkier is the fact that Phoenix has hardly employed Chriss within the offensive system.

But just as the midpoint of the year hits, there are inklings of positive signs that support the Suns selecting Chriss in the lottery.

It’s a matter of Chriss putting each of his building blocks together like Legos to form a complete game.

Double-digit scoring games have begun to come more frequently as playing time increases. While he’s been about as dangerous a scorer as P.J. Tucker and a lesser rebounder than the smaller, less-athletic energy leader of the Suns, Chriss has shown flashes.

Let’s first gloss over Chriss’ dunking abilities to get to the other good stuff.

His Jan. 9 game against the Cavaliers showed his value against traditional NBA forwards — The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks has already explained the concerns over teams simply countering Chriss with small ball — though any big showing against Kevin Love comes with an asterisk (along with the less-than-impressive rebounding rate, Chriss shares another thing with Markieff Morris).

Here, off a deflected pass, Chriss readjusts to make the catch and immediately attacks Kevin Love, who is too slow and too busy closing out to cut off the baseline. Two dribbles — with a clear path mind you — Chriss is scoring at the rim thanks to his quick, natural reaction upon making the catch.

The next step for the forward is putting the ball on the deck in traffic. Chriss has yet to build a sense of when there’s room to dribble. He also must be better about perceiving whether guards digging down into the post will turn him over.

There are promising steps forward on offense as Chriss allows the speed of the game to slow down. He recently showed the ability to make pinpoint kick-out and swing passes that hit guards in the shooter’s pocket — as in, where they can quickly catch and in rhythm take a shot. He doesn’t get tunnel vision, albeit in the few opportunities he gets the ball in the post.

On fastbreaks, Chriss earned three assists facing Cleveland by making basic dishes to open players, including this nifty touch-pass to T.J. Warren.

He even put together several positive moves by boxing out Love and keeping his head up to hit a streaking Dragan Bender in stride with the outlet pass.

Chriss has been accused of floating on defense before.

This is hardly a problem when he’s guarding the ball. Chriss has shown focus — if not overaggression — in defending post bigs and held his own switching off guards. His struggles have come in making the proper rotations on time. It’s about timing and learning the rotations, seemingly more than effort.

Often times, he is a split-second behind making one rotation of help.

It’s when Chriss needs to make one more or simply recover when you can see him either losing focus or thinking too slowly about where he needs to be. Much of his rotational issues have to do with foul trouble, where Chriss tends to reach when he gets blown by or rotate to help too slowly.

Progress has been shown. Chriss has stayed out of foul trouble enough to see his minutes uptick from 14.9 in November, to 19.5 in December to 22.2 through six games of 2017.

When in one-on-one defensive situations, he has clearly taken note of showing his hands in order to help referees abstain from blowing their whistles. This play forcing Love into a travel stood out.

Offensively, Chriss has been hot and cold. His set jumper shows promise but has been, unfortunately, his main shot of choice for a team that has not looked to him in the post or on rim-rolls, where Tyson Chandler playing alongside him and the Suns guards’ iffy passing abilities hurt Chriss’ chances.

Chriss has taken more liberties in the last few weeks in squaring up and making quick moves toward the hoop from the high post. His spin move could be his calling card, and the recent implementation of a soft floater has been a promising addition to his game when he can’t get all the way to the cup.

Both of those items were put together on this play.

His awareness has seen a spike of improvement lately, too.

Twice against Cleveland with LeBron James defending Chriss, the rookie snuck into just the right spots for his teammates to find him cutting toward the hoop instead of floating to the three-point line.

Here James ignores him.

And again.

Chriss has actually been selectively solid in terms of his midrange shot attempts, and his finishing at the rim has turned out predictably less impressive than his athleticism might indicate.

More than anything, it’s on the Suns to slowly bring Chriss along, sprinkle in more touches as he adds more basic moves and then snap those building blocks together.

A high-risk, high-reward draft pick who went from questionable early-entry candidate to lottery choice in months, Chriss has taken a starting role before his 20th birthday.

Maybe, just maybe, the bust potential for Chriss wasn’t all that warranted.

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It’s clear Suns rookie Marquese Chriss has the building blocks