PBT’s NBA 2016 Draft Prospect Preview: Marquese Chriss

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Marquese Chriss is the ultimate lottery ticket in this year’s NBA Draft, a physical specimen that is a year away from being two years away.

He’s also one of the most fascinating stories in this draft. A football player throughout middle school, Chriss turned to basketball after a shoulder injury in eighth grade. He was nearly cut as a freshman, but quickly turned into one of the most promising high school players in California.

He wasn’t a top 50 prospect in the country, according to Rivals, but after just one season in college, he may end up being a top five pick in this year’s draft. That hasn’t happened before during the one-and-done era; Zach LaVine, the No. 44 recruit in 2013 and the No. 13 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, is the closest.

So what should we make of Chriss as a prospect, and just how likely is it that he’ll reach that potential?

Height: 6′ 10″
Weight: 233
Wingspan: 7′ 0.25″
2015-16 Stats: 13.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 35.0% 3PT

STRENGTHS: I’ve always hated when people refer to the small-ball revolution in basketball. Small-ball is a symptom of the change in how we understand the game. A better grasp of efficiency has taught us that the best way to score is through threes, layups and free throws, which puts an added value on the spacing created by three-point shooting and perimeter skill. It just so happens that, given the nature of basketball over the past 70 years or so, the players with the ability to shoot from the perimeter happen to be small players, which why there is now such a premium on players that can let a team play “small” offensively and “big” defensively.

Or, in other words, bigs that can make threes.

Enter Chriss, who is the prototype forward for what many believe to be the future of basketball. When it comes to physical tools, there really isn’t more that you can ask for in a prospect. He’s 6-foot-10, he has a wingspan that stretches over 7-feet, he’s athletic enough to get his head above the rim and he’s mobile enough that he can hold his own defending guards on the perimeter. He’s already 233 pounds and is one of the youngest players in this draft, both in terms of age (he turns 19 on July 2nd) and experience (he’s only played basketball for four years).

He does have a long neck — functionally, he’s than his 6-foot-10 size — and his somewhat-narrow frame means that there’s a limit to just how much more muscle mass he can put on, but that’s nitpicky. He’s a phenomenal athlete who is something of a blank canvas, although, as you’ll see, he has some bad habits that he’ll need to break.

And that’s before you consider what he’s actually able to do on a basketball court beyond catching lobs, throwing down tip-dunks and making Sportscenter in transition. Offensively, his skills are already pretty advanced. He shot 35.0 percent from beyond the arc, he showed off good mechanics in limited pull-up opportunities and he already has developed a really nice fadeaway jumper. He’s mobile enough to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, and the spin moves you’ll see in the edit below inspires confidence in the idea that he won’t be simply a straight-line driver:

Chriss also has a knack for getting to the offensive glass, where his athleticism always makes him a threat to posterize someone that forgets to box him out. He’s still developing in his ability to read ball-screen actions, but he’s got the shooting range and the athleticism to be both a pick-and-pop and a pick-and-roll threat. Considering his size and age, that’s a terrific baseline to be working with.

Defensively, he has a lot to improve on (we’ll get to that in a minute), but he’s a playmaker on that end. He has the anticipation to jump passing lanes and averaged 1.6 blocks on the season, showing a sense of timing coming from the weakside and the kind of athleticism to … take a shot off the glass with two hands. (This is ridiculous, by the way):

In other words, we’re looking at a freak athlete that hits threes, that can score in the post and off the dribble, who blocks shots and, in theory, can guard point guards on switches and small-ball fives?

No wonder he’s spent the spring rocketing up NBA Draft boards.

WEAKNESSES: There are a lot, but almost all of them center around the idea that Chriss’ feel for the game is about as lacking as you would expect from a guy who has been playing for just four years.

Let’s start with the defensive end of the floor, where Chriss led the NCAA in fouls committed. Seriously. He fouled out of 15 of the 34 games he played and had four fouls in ten others. The problem is one of over-aggressiveness. He bites on pump fakes far too often and he reaches for steals against ball-handlers when he really has no chance to get them. He’s the kind of defender that tries to make a play to get the ball back as opposed to getting in a stance, moving his feet and playing the kind of defense that will force an opponent into missing a tough shot. He can play those plays, but he gambles far too often when he doesn’t have a chance to get there.

The issue isn’t his ability to defend, as he has the lateral quickness and size to be really good on that end of the floor. The issue is discipline and fundamentals. He has bad habits that someone is going to have to coach him out of. That’s a bigger problem to deal with than a player that just has no clue what he’s supposed to be doing on that end, but it’s not insurmountable.

By the end of the season, this fouling issue seemingly had gotten into his head, as he was demonstrative in his frustration — with himself and with the officials — when he would get whistled for fouls.

The other issue for Chriss defensively is that he was a truly terrible defensive rebounder, averaging just 2.9 per game this past season. He far too often tried to outjump opponents for rebounds, and while that may have worked at the high school level, it was a major reason that Washington was one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country this past season. He often took himself out of position by trying to make highlight reel weakside blocks, leaving his man wide open for a putback. Hell, it’s not that hard to find instances on film where Chriss takes a step towards the ball as a weakside defender, realizes he’s not going to get there to make the block and fails to get back into position defensively, watching as the guy he was guarding throws down a tip-dunk of his own:

Offensively, there are times that it’s quite obvious Chriss has not played all that much high-level basketball. He had 26 assists to 69 turnovers this season, many of them the result of simply throwing terrible passes. Perhaps more telling is the fact that his left hand is almost non-existent around the rim. He’s actually quite adept at driving left, but he’s almost always going to spin back to his right or try to finish at the rim with his right hand. You’ll see in the clips below that he costs himself numerous and-ones because he can’t finish with his left through contact.

Chriss also has a habit of dribbling into two or three defenders, likely because he simply doesn’t have the feel to understand or recognize where the help is coming from or when it is coming:

Again, this is something that he can be taught, but it is just another necessary step Chriss needs to take to be able to contribute to an NBA team.

And that is probably the most relevant “weakness” we can mention. If you’re drafting Chriss, you’re drafting a guy that could end up in the D-League and likely won’t help your team for two years.

NBA COMPARISON: This one is tough because much of it depends on how he is molded by the team that drafts him. The comparison that gets made quite often is to Rudy Gay, which is largely because Chriss told reporters at the NBA Combine that Gay is the guy that he tries to model his game after. Personally, I’m not a big Gay guy, mostly because I think that Chriss projects as more of a combo-forward than a pure small forward. I think Jeff Green might be a better comparison, both in terms of how he gets used and the kind of impact that he’ll have, although Green is just an average NBA three-point shooter and isn’t the same kind of athlete or rim protector that Chriss is. Marvin Williams is another name that I’ve seen mentioned.

Neither of those guys are great comparisons, but that’s kind of the point with Chriss. He’s a guy whose value is tied to the fact that he can play an important role if the NBA continues in the direction that it has been heading the last few years.

OUTLOOK: Chriss is the kind of prospect that gets GMs fired. Pass on him for Jaylen Brown or Dragan Bender and you might look like the guy that picked Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn over Steph Curry. But if you gamble on him and he flops, you’ll have to explain how you’re decision was different than the guy that took Andrea Bargnani over LaMarcus Aldridge or Brandan Wright over Joakim Noah.

For Chriss, any NBA team that is considering drafting him has to ask themselves two questions:

  • Does Chriss have the work ethic and the desire to make himself into the kind of player that can impact a franchise in the NBA?
  • Does our organization have the locker room stability and player development capacity to get the best out of him?

If the answer to either of those questions is no, then that team should not even consider selecting Chriss. He’s a gamble whose payoff won’t be seen for years and will require quite a bit of coaching and development. Given that his ceiling is probably short of being an NBA all-star and his floor is of a guy that we never hear from again, you better be certain if you make the pick.