The pass comes in a little high for Marquese Chriss, who has slipped behind his defender and taken four quick steps into a leap toward the basket. From a camera angle above the backboard, you can see that Chriss’ right hand, arm fully extended, is almost behind his head as he stops the ball and redirects it down through the basket in one explosive motion.
The force of the movement knocks Chriss into a backward somersault upon landing. He rises to his feet again deliberately – a short way from where nearly the entire Phoenix bench has jumped to theirs.
This Jan. 22 dunk in Toronto, Chriss said during a recent visit to Golden 1 Center, is his favorite so far in his rookie NBA season. He has choices. There’s the one-handed put-back at Golden State in November. The backward Alley-Oop in Minnesota. All part of an early highlight reel being compiled by the 6-foot-10 forward out of Washington, by way of Pleasant Grove High School in Elk Grove.
“I love dunking,” Chriss said after a morning shootaround before the Suns played the Kings earlier this month. “I think it’s fun. I love in-game dunks … When they (appear) on Twitter, I’ll watch it a couple times. And then I’ll try to just let it float away, forget about that one and try to move on to the next one.”
Still just 19 years old, Chriss is blowing past benchmarks in his first professional season. The rebuilding Suns inserted him into their starting lineup for the first time in November. In January, he was named the Western Conference’s Rookie of the Month. This weekend, Chriss will make his first appearance at All-Star Weekend, competing in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday.
A year ago at this time, Chriss wasn’t even appearing on many NBA mock drafts. Now the fourth-youngest player in the league, he is also one of its most intriguing.
“Right away, you can see the upside that he has within his game,” said Mike Brown, the former Cavaliers head coach and current Warriors assistant who’ll be one of the coaches in the Rising Stars game.
“He’s talented; he’s extremely young, obviously. And he’s athletic; he’s got length. And he’s skilled, but he can become even more skilled. That’s what I’m excited about when I look at a guy like him. He fits with today’s NBA game.”
It’s what the Suns envisioned last June when they paid a hefty price to acquire Chriss in a draft-day trade with the Kings, who selected him eighth overall. Phoenix parted with the 13th and 28th overall picks in the draft, a future second-round pick and the draft rights to guard Bogdan Bogdanovic of Serbia. The Kings used the picks to draft Georgios Papagiannis and Skal Labissiere.
As a top-10 pick, Chriss was viewed as something of a gamble – raw, thin at 233 pounds but with a 7-foot wingspan and tantalizing athleticism that showed during his lone season at Washington in his ability to handle the ball, switch defensively to guard players a foot shorter and, yes, finish dunks. The potential, at least, has translated, Brown said.
“He’s got the ability to play multiple positions, not only offensively in my opinion but defensively, too,” Brown said. “He has the skill set to play a four; he could possibly at times play the three; obviously he can play the five. As a coach, you can go big with him, you can go small or play a regular lineup with him at power forward.
“And on the flip side, defensively, as versatile as the bigs are in today’s game, you want to be able to switch on pick-and-rolls, you want to be able to switch pin-downs at times. And a guy like him, he can switch and stay in front of a point guard or a two-guard, and chase them if he has to, because he has the athleticism and versatility.”
He is still, of course, largely unproven. In his first 57 NBA games, Chriss has averaged 18.8 minutes, 7.6 points (eighth among rookies), 3.5 rebounds (eighth) and 0.6 blocks (fourth). He is also averaging 3.1 fouls, roughly one every six minutes he’s on the court.
Still, the Suns clearly have high hopes for Chriss defensively. Head coach Earl Watson recently told the Arizona Republic that Chriss “has to become our Draymond Green” – apparently referring not only to the play of the Warriors’ defensive standout but also the edge Green lends to Golden State.
“We want (Chriss) to be intimidating since he plays so high above the rim,” Watson told the Republic. “We don’t want to really reveal how he’s really nice. You talk to him in person, he’s a typical 19-year-old. He’s the nicest guy on our team. He has a big heart. On the court, we want him to turn into something else, which is just a beast in the lane.”
Chriss said he is working on his defense, both in the post and on the perimeter. The Suns have struggled defensively, allowing the second-most points in the league, one reason they enter the All-Star break at the bottom of the Western Conference. But they have assembled a young core that includes Chriss, second-year guard Devin Booker and 19-year-old forward Dragan Bender, last year’s fourth overall pick.
“I think we’re looking to build and grow together,” said Chriss, who first clicked with the Suns last year in his predraft workout. “We understand we’re a young team with a young core group of players. And we’re just going to develop and get better as time goes on.”
That is certainly the goal for Chriss, who said earlier this month: “I don’t just want to be somebody you look at and go, ‘He can dunk.’ I want to be able to have a skills game. I want to be able to have a finesse game and everything like that.”
So he will spend this weekend in New Orleans, soaking in the All-Star atmosphere and competing for the U.S. side in the rookie-sophomore event, then return to the daily grind of his development as an NBA player, still a teenager among men.
“Just continue to grow, get better,” Chriss said of his goals the rest of the season. “Not really chasing any accolades. I just want to keep getting better.”
U.S. Team roster
Devin Booker, Suns
Malcolm Brogdon, Bucks
Marquese Chriss, Suns
Brandon Ingram, Lakers
Frank Kaminsky, Hornets
Jahlil Okafor, 76ers
D’Angelo Russell, Lakers
Jonathon Simmons, Spurs
Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
Myles Turner, Pacers
World Team roster
*Alex Abrines, Thunder
Danté Exum, Jazz
Buddy Hield, Pelicans
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Trey Lyles, Jazz
**Willy Hernangomez, Knicks
Jamal Murray, Nuggets
Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks
Domantas Sabonis, Thunder
Dario Saric, 76ers
*Replacement for Joel Embiid
**Replacement for Emmanuel Muiday