SAN FRANCISCO – The Warriors gave up on Damian Jones, their 2016 first-round draft pick, after losing confidence in his evolution from 7-foot athlete into reliable NBA contributor. They traded him in July because, after three years, they’d exhausted their patience.
The Suns didn’t have as much patience with Marquese Chriss, even though they drafted him No. 8 overall – 22 picks ahead of Jones – as their power forward of the future. Chriss was traded to the Rockets after two years in Phoenix.
Five months later, Chriss was shuttled from Houston to Cleveland.
One month after that, the NBA slapped Chriss with a one-game suspension for exchanging blows with Raptors big man Serge Ibaka.
Six months later, Chriss was a free agent signing a non-guaranteed contract with the Warriors, who, after evaluating him for two weeks, are falling in love with him.
“Marquese has been really, really impressive,” coach Steve Kerr said, adding that he plans to start Chriss at center Monday, when the Warriors face the Lakers at Staples Center.
Draymond Green echoed his coach's sentiments.
“Marquese has been great the whole training camp,” Green said.
Chriss' NBA career hasn't gone as planned, but the Warriors see he's locked in on his latest opportunity to become a mainstay in the league.
“Marquese, obviously with what he’s been through in his career, is trying to gain footing and be in the position to hopefully contribute,” Stephen Curry said. “Everyone just wants an opportunity, and he’s taking advantage of it.”
A man unwanted by two of the league’s sorriest franchises is passing the eye test of a Warriors team coming off five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and expected to make the playoffs this season. Sports can be strange that way, right?
“They told me they would give me a fair shot to make the team,” Chriss said. “They have done that.”
Like Jones, Chriss was drafted because scouts liked his size (6-10, 240 pounds), his length (7-1 wingspan) and his leaping ability (38.5-inch vertical, one inch higher than Jones). It all added up to immense upside. And there have been occasional flashes of that projected potential. Gorgeous spin moves. Fantastic shot rejections. Sweet footwork. And, of course, plenty of soaring above rims to jam lobs.
But, of course, there was another side to Chriss. There were displays of immaturity, particularly in the heat of competition. There has been scarlet-letter innuendo about his conditioning and attitude, which led to questions about his commitment.
The Warriors inspected the red flags, considered the integrity of their culture and concluded they can get the best of Chriss. If it fails, hey, they don’t lose a nickel.
“He’s been on three teams already in his brief career, so we’re probably getting him at a good time,” Kerr said. “He’s had some opportunities that haven’t gone his way, for whatever reason. Now, all of a sudden, he’s got a great opportunity because we’ve got guys hurt at that spot and he’s making the most of it.
“He’s making a strong case for himself.”
In 39 minutes over two games, Chriss had produced 16 points (7-of-12 from the field, 2-of-2 from the line), 17 rebounds, eight assists and two blocks. Moreover, his “feel” for the game is evident in how he approaches tasks at both ends. He routinely exhibits the basketball presence the Warriors were hoping Jones could develop.
Indeed, Chriss’ combination of athleticism and skill is as good or better than any of the nine actual centers that have started under Kerr.
“He’s picked everything up really quickly,” Kerr said. “He’s much more advanced as a screener than I knew. A dribble-handoff guy at the top, slipping screens, finding the right angles, screening without fouling. He’s shown a really good talent in that regard. And that’s a big part of our offense.”
Chriss doesn’t seem impressed by the glowing reviews. In his mind, he’s just playing basketball, as he did at Pleasant Grove High in Elk Grove and for one season at the University of Washington.
As he tried to do, without much success, in three NBA seasons before finding the Warriors.
“They’ve put me in position to succeed,” Chriss said. “And I felt coming here, it would fit the way that I like to play. I like to set screens. I like to roll to the basket. I like to pass. And that’s something they let their bigs do. They play off their bigs a lot, and I felt it was a good fit for me.”
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Chriss, 22, seems to understand that this is may not be his last chance to live his NBA dream, but it may be his best chance. That was part of the thinking behind joining the Warriors with no guaranteed money rather than accepting the relative security of a two-way contract elsewhere.
He’s betting on himself. And with one week remaining in the preseason, his hand is strong. After all the Warriors have seen and said, the smart money has them finding a way to keep him.