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Marquese Chriss could become franchise player for Phoenix Suns

From left to right, Phoenix Suns second-round draft pick Tyler Ulis and first-round draft picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are introduced to the media as head coach Earl Watson smiles, Friday, June 24, 2016, in Phoenix.
From left to right, Phoenix Suns second-round draft pick Tyler Ulis and first-round draft picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are introduced to the media as head coach Earl Watson smiles, Friday, June 24, 2016, in Phoenix. The Associated Press

The next-door neighbor saw it when Marquese Chriss was just a school kid throwing a football in the street and let one go about 60 yards down the block with a flick of the wrist.

Everybody could see it – his neighbors, his family, his coaches.

Who knows, maybe if his mom hadn’t advised him against football, the kid could have been the first 6-foot-10 free safety in the NFL.

Being a good son, Chriss adhered to his mother’s caution for his personal safety and went for basketball. Moms do tend to know a thing or two, and this instinctual knowledge paid off for Chriss on Thursday night.

After playing just one college season, Chriss opted for the NBA draft. The Kings selected him with the eighth pick in the first round, for the Phoenix Suns, who had acquired him before the pick was made.

We’ll know in about three years if the Kings made the right decision, but there was no grumbling about the home team Thursday night at the Bull Wings Grill & Bar in Elk Grove.

At the watch party, the 45 or so people who helped nurture Chriss at Pleasant Grove High School focused on his well-being, not that of the Kings. They remembered him as humble, well-behaved and polite, a respectful kid who cheerfully and naturally sprang with the requisite honorifics whenever he addressed them. They recalled how he toughened up to help Pleasant Grove win a state championship in 2013. Once he knew he had the potential to go to college, they recalled how he stayed on track with his studies and made sure he took all the right courses and worked hard at them to ensure the eventual scholarship he received from the University of Washington.

“He was always preparing himself to go to the next level and making sure he had the possibility to make his options happen,” said Teresa Schmutte, his academic counselor at Pleasant Grove. “His mom (Shawntae Wright, a Placer County social worker) was pretty humble in it all, making sure Marquese was doing all the right things to get things done. And it blossomed for him.”

The staffers’ memories are fairly fresh. He graduated from Pleasant Grove just a year ago, and he doesn’t turn 19 until July 2. He keeps in touch with plenty of them through texts and Facebook.

“He’s just a kid you root for on all levels,” said Jeremiah Taylor, an assistant basketball coach at Pleasant Grove who worked with Chriss for three years. “He is the nicest kid – a sweetheart. I know guys don’t like to be described as a sweetheart, but that’s what he is – a sweetheart.”

Make that a sweetheart who is 6-10 in shoes with a sweet shot from the perimeter and the ability to switch off the pick to defend players nearly a foot smaller. It has become an important skill in the modern NBA, where bigs these days have to be able to play small if they’re going to play at all.

The highlight reels out of Seattle show Chriss flying in to grab lob passes near the rim and slamming the ball. They also show a young man who gets back on defense and uses his dragon-like wingspan to jam up opponents beneath the rim. Give him a couple of inches outside the stripe, and you better be ready to turn around in time to see the swish.

“I feel like my potential is really endless,” Chriss told the media in Phoenix during a teleconference after the draft-day deal.

Chriss knows he has to pay more attention to rebounding. Even with his fantastic shot-blocking abilities, he concedes his defense needs work – he reaches and fouls too much, the experts say. He needs to add muscle to his 235-pound frame, and he’s spending time becoming more comfortable putting the ball on the floor.

Once he gets all the other stuff, and it could take a couple of years, the prognosis around the NBA is that Chriss can become an All-Star.

“I think I can do anything,” he said with the wonderful optimism of youth.

The feeling in the restaurant the other night was that beyond All-Stardom, Chriss is face-of-the-franchise material.

He’s a good son, brother and neighbor. He works hard. He’s focused and wants to get better. He’s smart. He likes to have fun. He has talent.

“The late bloomer he is created a work ethic and created an ability for him to see that there is a direct relationship between what you put in and what you get out,” Taylor said. “Being crazy talented, in and of itself, isn’t good enough. But all those other intangibles, the things that don’t show up on the stat sheets, that’s what’s going to make him successful.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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