SAN FRANCISCO – You’re a 2016 NBA lottery pick, selected eighth overall. It’s time to shine. Get your game on and, eventually, fatten your bank account.
Three years and three teams later, you’re on the outskirts of the league.
As days and nights last summer came and went without a phone call or a text message or so much as a July 2nd Happy Birthday greeting, Marquese Chriss concedes that during his 90-day turn as a free agent there were moments when he wondered if that is how his dream would end.
“It sucked, man,” he recalls in an extended recent conversation with NBC Sports Bay Area. “You go into free agency trying to stay as optimistic as possible. I understood that the big names were going to sign in the first three or four days. But a lot was going on, especially with the Kawhi (Leonard) situation. It had a lot of us waiting. People in my position, just trying to find a spot to fill in those last couple roster spots ... it was hard.”
July flips to August, which silently slides toward September. September arrives and roster spots are drying up and, still, not a peep for a 22-year-old forward/center 39 months removed from being a top-10 pick out of the University of Washington.
“I’d be lying,” Chriss says, “if I didn’t admit that I saw certain people signing and thought, ‘Damn, I can do the same thing if I was given an opportunity.’ But I don’t ever want to be that person who knocks somebody else’s hustle. I wish the best for everybody because I want people to wish that for me.”
Not until NBA Media Day, on Sept. 30, as the last of the league’s teams were opening camp, did Chriss feel he could exhale. The Warriors offered a non-guaranteed contract. An invitation to join them in training camp. It was the best deal available, so he jumped on it.
Even the Warriors, in the midst of massive roster overhaul, weren’t so sure he’d make it.
“I heard he was coming to camp, and I just thought, ‘Whatever.’ Honestly, I didn’t think anything of it,” coach Steve Kerr says. “Every year, we bring guys into camp and there are five guys who are going to get cut. I just kind of assumed he’s going to be a camp invite and we’re probably going to cut him.
“But after the first day, I thought, ‘Oh, wait.’’’
Chriss is 6-foot-9, 240 pounds. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan and a 38-inch vertical leap. He still possessed the gifts that convinced the Phoenix Suns to send three players -- including Bogdan Bogdanovic -- and two future second-round draft picks to the Kings for the right to present Chriss with a two-year contract two weeks later. He signed, guaranteeing his first $6 million NBA dollars.
Three years later, Chriss is on his fourth team and carrying the baggage that comes with being abandoned by the Suns after two seasons, traded twice in less than six months -- from Phoenix to Houston, then Houston to Cleveland -- as well as serving an NBA-mandated one-game suspension for his part in an on-court scuffle with Serge Ibaka, who served three games.
He came to the Warriors knowing his career was at a crossroads, hoping it wouldn’t die under a pile of back-page transactions, identifiable mostly by undertones of questionable character.
“It’s people’s perception,” Chriss says. “I can be a loud, outspoken person when I’m playing and the complete opposite when I’m not. I’m chilling. I don’t say much, except to my teammates. But I’m just expressive, and sometimes people take my competitiveness that for anger. As a competitor, when I’m going against somebody who doesn’t want me to win, I take it personally. That’s how I am.
“And I don’t want to change. I just want to be able to channel it in a positive way.”
That’s what Kerr and his staff saw in the first workout. Veteran forward Draymond Green, a three-time All-Star who has a soft spot for fellow firebrands, saw the same attributes. The original gifts. Draymond went to Kerr and urged him to find a way to keep Chriss around.
The lifeline Chriss had grabbed days earlier was about to resuscitate his career.
He also realized he was running out of opportunities.
“I had to become an adult,” Chriss says, taking blame for past mistakes. “Realizing that I had to leave childish acts in the past. I’ll probably still have some lapses where there are signs of immaturity. But I’m continuing to grow. I’m growing up and I understand that I can’t take this opportunity for granted.”
Flashing an ability to do most of the things everything required of the current generation of NBA centers -- rebound, protect the rim, set screens and provide a lob threat -- Chriss made the final roster. The Warriors chose to keep him instead of small forward Alfonzo McKinnie.
That small sip of job security lasted about 11 weeks.
The Warriors lurched into 2020 with a roster they hadn’t imagined. They knew Klay Thompson, rehabilitating his surgically repaired left ACL, wouldn’t be available. They lost Steph Curry in the second week of the season; he’d miss at least three months, maybe four. The absence of both backcourt starters forced a reliance on Damion Lee and Ky Bowman, guards operating under the 45-day limit imposed on two-way contracts.
They were running out of NBA days, and the Warriors needed them. Someone with a standard contract would have to go. Chriss, with his non-guaranteed deal, was the obvious choice. It didn’t matter that he generally played well, or that one week earlier there had been a blip of temper that resulted in a gratuitous shove of Mavericks star Luka Doncic. The Warriors wanted Chriss, but they needed Lee because he was their starting shooting guard.
On Jan. 7 in Sacramento, a short ride from the Elk Grove neighborhood where Chriss grew up, he was waived in a meeting with director of operations Jonnie West and Kerr.
“Having to do that sucks,” Chriss says. “But I had no animosity. I understood the business of it. I knew when I came here, that the Warriors had money limitations (due to being hard-capped). I still came. I understood they would have to make some hard business choices, so I was emotionally prepared for that. I didn’t take it personally or think of it as a demotion or anything like that.”
Back on the market again, Chriss this time didn’t stare at his phone. He was hoping it wouldn’t ring. That he would clear waivers and re-sign with the Warriors once the roster smoke cleared.
Eight days later, he was back in a Warriors jersey after signing a two-way contract. He essentially traded places with Lee, except Chriss’ prorated 45-day clock was starting at zero. He wouldn’t need to use many such days, as 10 days later the Warriors traded starting center Willie Cauley-Stein.
Within two weeks of Willie’s departure to Dallas, “Quese” received a standard, guaranteed contract for the remainder of this season and all of 2020-21.
“It’s been a strange road, with the twist of cutting him and keeping our fingers crossed that nobody would claim him,” Kerr says.
“It worked out for us. And it’s working out for him. We’re a good match.”
Chriss was five days past his 19th birthday when he signed his contract with the Suns. He had no idea that he was aligning with a franchise whose defining characteristic was dysfunction. Owner Robert Sarver, ill-tempered and a compulsive meddler, presided over a revolving door of coaches and general managers.
As a teenage rookie, Chriss should have been learning the way of the league. Instead, he played in all 82 games, with 75 starts. He made 49 starts in his second season, after which he was shipped to the Rockets. He lasted 16 games before Houston shoved him to the Cavaliers, with whom he played 27 games before becoming a free agent last July.
It was the Houston experience, however, that stays with Chriss.
“Maybe I needed to go to Houston to grow, mentally,” he says. “It made me understand what I’m capable of doing, and that’s it’s not always about me. I took responsibility and had to grow up, become emotionally mature and keep believing an opportunity would come.”
Knowing the NBA has a long list of players who fail to impress as teenagers, with some losing the quest while others eventually find a place to evolve and thrive, the Warriors took it from there. Their front office and coaching staff have seen enough to place a measure of faith in Chriss’ upward trajectory.
“He’s been a great young guy,” Kerr says. “Talented. Smart. A great teammate. I love coaching him. I think he’s a long-term piece for us here.”
Chriss brightens at the mention of his current place in the league.
“Here, they instill confidence in their players,” he says. “Obviously, that confidence comes from winning and them knowing what they’re capable of doing. When a championship organization has faith in you, it says a lot. I think it’s given me the kind of confidence in myself that I haven’t had in a while. They know what success looks like. For them to want me to be a part of that, I’m thankful.”
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If Chriss is driven by anything it is the notion that he doesn’t belong -- and that several previous employers drew that conclusion. He’s not a finished product, but he’s already giving the Warriors the kind of production that can make him a fixture.
Who knew that the Warriors would find a potential starting center discarded by the Suns, Rockets and Cavaliers?
“The question, at least I don’t think, was never about my ability or skill,” Chriss says. “People tried to question my motor and my attitude, or saying I wasn’t willing to be coached. If anybody here talks about it, I think you’d see it’s the opposite.
“There was a false narrative written on me early, and I’m trying to rewrite it. It’s taken me four years to try to correct that.”
Chriss has been a Warrior for less than five months but insists this is the most stable and structured NBA environment he has known. He turns 23 in July, so there should be plenty of career ahead. This might not be his last stop in the league, but it’s the one he needs now.