John DePonte teaches math at Pleasant Grove High School, and he encourages any student to attend college and stay for however long it takes to earn a degree.
DePonte also coached Pleasant Grove’s boys basketball team for six seasons before stepping down in 2014, and his best player ever isn’t just another college student.
He’s Marquese Chriss, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound, one-and-done freshman standout at Washington who last week announced he will enter the NBA draft. As of Monday afternoon, Chriss was ranked eighth overall by Chad Ford of ESPN Insider.
If Chriss goes in the first round, he’ll join Bill Cartwright of Elk Grove High (Knicks, third overall in 1979), Kevin Johnson of Sacramento High (Cavaliers, seventh in 1987) and Ryan Anderson of Oak Ridge (Nets, 21st in 2008) as area first-round picks.
NBA teams see all this potential in him. If he stayed another season (at Washington), how far would his stock go? He’s already projected as a top-15 pick. He’s healthy, he’s had a good year, and his potential is so high.
John DePonte, Pleasant Grove High School boys basketball coach, on 18-year-old NBA prospect Marquese Chriss
DePonte saw Chriss progress from a lanky freshman who never had played organized basketball to a national recruit as a senior whose highlight-reel skills brought practices to a halt.
Good move? Risky move?
“Prior to him going to Washington, I could see that Marquese had the skill set that a lot of players projected to get drafted in the first round had,” DePonte said Monday. “I was thinking he would benefit from two years of college, but then watching him play a lot this season, I thought, ‘Wow. He already compares to these projected top-10 picks.’
“I’ve seen a lot of progress and thought, ‘Wow, he can leave after one season.’ So his decision didn’t surprise me because of how quickly he improved and modified. We’re all excited for him. His coaches, former teammates, a lot of us are proud of him.”
Athleticism is Chriss’ strong suit. He enjoys blocking shots, so much so that foul trouble was a concern at Washington. He wants to contest every shot. Chriss can glide baseline to baseline with several long strides. He can handle the ball, pass and make mid-range jumpers. He is explosive around the rim, an emphatic dunker.
And yes, after just one year of college ball, he still can improve and shoot better. But Chriss is in good company, as many in the draft class of 2016 are viewed as projects, including several with only one season of college experience. At Washington, Chriss made 68 percent of his free throws and 35 percent of his three-point attempts. He averaged 13.7 points for the 19-15 Huskies, who reached the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
Chriss has left Seattle to focus on his next venture. He will attend the NBA draft combine May 11-15 in Chicago, where he will be scrutinized. How high can he jump? How are his ballhandling skills? One-on-one skills? The works.
And there’s one alarming number for Chriss.
“He’s only 18 years old,” DePonte said. “And he’s a legit college freshman. He wasn’t held back in middle school to grow, didn’t go to a prep school. NBA teams see all this potential in him. If he stayed another season, how far would his stock go? He’s already projected as a top-15 pick. He’s healthy, he’s had a good year, and his potential is so high.”
13.7 Marquese Chriss’ scoring average at Washington this season
DePonte received a call last week from a Cleveland Cavaliers staffer. He expects many more calls as the draft approaches in June. Teams will ask DePonte about a prospect’s character, work ethic, desire to compete, support system.
“Marquese is a very nice kid, very respectful,” DePonte said. “As a competitor on the court, he at times had to improve his body English. He’s still a young guy. But you can see the joy he plays with, and he can do things in this game a lot of people can’t do. He’s still growing. He may grow to 6-11 and fill out.”
Chriss had what DePonte described as a heart-to-heart with his mother, Shawntae, before his draft announcement.
“His mom is very grounded, and she’s a breath of fresh air,” DePonte said. “She’s very naive about how good Marquese is. After (the Eagles’ 2013 Division I state championship) his sophomore year here, I told her to prepare herself. There will be a lot of snakes out there, people coming after him for AAU ball, college, anything. Be careful. She asked: ‘Is he really that good?’ ‘Yes, he’s that good.’ ”