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Marquese Chriss Is the Draft’s Biggest Gamble

Will your team take the plunge?

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

Forget the international guys. The real man of mystery in this year’s NBA draft is Marquese Chriss, the Washington forward who has shot up mock drafts in recent months. Chriss went from being projected for the middle of the first round to possibly going as high as no. 3 overall to the Boston Celtics, a stunning rise for a prospect who didn’t get 1 percent of the publicity Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram received this season.

Chriss has always been a late bloomer. He didn’t start playing organized basketball until the age of 14, when a shoulder injury short-circuited his football career. As a result, he doesn’t have the same knowledge base and feel as some of his peers — a dynamic compounded by his age. He doesn’t turn 19 until July 2, making him one of the youngest players in the draft, along with Ingram and Dragan Bender.

A one-year gap isn’t a big deal for established NBA players, but it can make a drastic difference in terms of development at the amateur level and the way talents are perceived coming into the league. As one executive from a team choosing in the lottery said to me, imagine how highly Ingram and Chriss would be regarded if they were already this good and about to start their freshman year in the fall.

It’s not hard to see how Chriss was missed by the recruiting services and the draft pundits. His age and inexperience meant he was always playing at a disadvantage compared to his older peers in high school. Playing for a young Washington team that missed the NCAA tournament meant he rarely, if ever, appeared on national TV. Chriss was the third-highest-rated recruit on his own team, and he could be the first recruit outside of the top 50 rankings to be drafted in the top 10 as a one-and-done player since the rule was instituted a decade ago.

The downside: He needs a lot of coaching and development to reach his potential. The upside: He’s a ball of clay who could theoretically be molded into almost anything.

What Makes Chriss so Intriguing?

The big selling point is his athleticism. At 6-foot-10, 233 pounds, with a 7-foot wingspan, Chriss is a big man who moves like a guard. He gets off the ground quickly and he plays way above the rim. He’s like a video game character whose turbo button is jammed. He just moved faster than anyone he faced this season; there aren’t many guys who can win a running-and-jumping contest against him. His final NCAA game came in the second round of the NIT against San Diego State, a team overflowing with NBA-caliber athletes, if not NBA-caliber players. Steve Fisher recruits elite length and athleticism at every position for a program that prides itself on flying to the ball, and Chriss was easily the best athlete on the floor.

Add the ability to play with the ball in his hands and a developing jumper and Chriss is a very intriguing prospect. He’s a smooth player who can step out to 25-plus feet, beat defenders off the dribble with his first step, and get all the way to the rim. Chriss has a face-up and a post-up game, so there are multiple dimensions to his offensive repertoire.

The only time Chriss should be creating his own offense early in his NBA career is when opposing teams switch the pick-and-roll, giving him a clear mismatch. Chriss has the length and the touch to shoot over the top of smaller defenders, and he has the speed to blow by slower defenders on the perimeter. Going against guys who are just as long and just as athletic as he is will probably not be a recipe for consistent success. He faced them once every few months in the NCAA; he’ll be facing them every single night in the NBA.

The beauty of the two-man game, though, is that it moves guys off of their natural positions on both sides of the floor. These days, young big men are judged as much for their ability to guard in space as for their ability to bang in the post, and no big in this draft is better suited for that than Chriss. He showed the ability to comfortably stay in front of smaller guards as part of Washington’s switch-heavy defense. Maybe the most exciting part of his profile is the way he moves his feet while guarding smaller players on the perimeter in these plays against SDSU:

How Did He Look Against Elite Competition?

I’m much more concerned with how NBA prospects fare against other draft prospects than against people going pro in something other than sports. That’s especially true for big men, since most of the players they face in the NCAA aren’t in the same realm athletically, nor do they possess NBA-caliber skill. So Chriss putting up numbers against schools like Mount St. Mary’s (29 points on 11-for-18 shooting, 10 rebounds) doesn’t mean much when projecting him to the next level.

The three biggest tests Chriss faced as a freshman came against Gonzaga (Domantas Sabonis), Cal (Ivan Rabb), and SDSU (Malik Pope, Winston Shepard). The Gonzaga game was in November, the Cal game was in February, and the SDSU game was in March, giving us a good handle on how much progress he made over the course of the season.

Nov. 25 vs. Gonzaga: 4 points on 1-for-5 shooting, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 5 fouls

The matchup against Sabonis was a disaster for Chriss. To be fair, he was playing in only his fourth NCAA game in a converted hotel ballroom in the Bahamas, a little over a week after a game in China. Sabonis was a killer in his matchups with NBA prospects this season — see his dismantling of Jakob Poeltl in the NCAA tournament — and he made very short work of Chriss. Sabonis pushed Chriss around the floor and fouled him out in less than 15 minutes, finishing with 17 points, on 5-for-8 shooting, and 9 rebounds. The video shows an overmatched freshman unprepared for the size and intensity of the NCAA game.

Feb. 18 vs. Cal: 17 points on 6-for-15 shooting, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks, 4 fouls

Three months later, Chriss was a different player. The individual matchup between Chriss and Rabb (who would have been a lottery pick if he declared) was one of the most entertaining of the season. It felt like an NBA All-Star Game, with two athletes, both at least 6-foot-9, who can get their own shot going at each other on both offense and defense. Chriss had to dig deep into his bag of tricks to score on Rabb and vice versa. It was also an interesting showcase of Chriss’s defensive versatility, as Cal had NBA prospects up and down its roster and Washington was switching everything. He was matched up with everyone from 6-foot-3 Jordan Mathews to 7-foot Kameron Rooks over the course of the game.

March 21 at SDSU: 19 points on 6-for-14 shooting, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals, 5 fouls

The combined numbers from all three games show a guy who isn’t ready to efficiently create his own shot in the NBA. The good news for whoever drafts him is that he won’t have to. One of the biggest differences between the NCAA and the NBA is the frequency of the post-up in comparison to the pick-and-roll. Chriss used 18 percent of his possessions in the post and 4 percent in the two-man game, a ratio which should reverse at the next level. For a freshman, he was a decent post scorer (0.857 points per possession) and an excellent roll man (1.136 points per possession), according to Synergy Sports Technology. He has the versatility to roll to the front of the rim and finish over length or pop out for the jumper. Let him play with a good NBA point guard in space and he is going to be a serious problem.

So, What’s the Catch?

Chriss is nowhere near ready for the physicality of the NBA. Chriss fouled out in two of the three games against elite competition and almost fouled out of the other. He had the tendency to reach and gamble when he was tired, and picked up silly fouls when battling in the post away from the ball. Many young big men have problems with foul trouble; the problems usually persist until they can hold their own in the wrestling matches that occur on the box. As you would expect from an 18-year-old, Chriss will need to put on weight and become stronger to survive in the NBA.

At this stage of his career, he relies too much on athleticism to bail him out on plays. He has a hard time reading defenses on the move and he tends to force the issue against helpside defenders. He averaged two turnovers and less than one assist as a freshman, an indicator that he can’t be trusted to make decisions as the primary shot creator. These clips from the SDSU game show some of the problems he can face against disciplined half-court defenses with NBA-caliber athletes. Discretion is the better part of valor, and Chriss needs to learn when to look to pass and not hunt for his own shot.

There is also no sugarcoating his rebounding numbers. They are terrible. He is dead last for big men in this year’s draft in terms of pace-adjusted numbers for total rebounding and defensive rebounding percentage. That’s partly the result of playing so much on the perimeter on both sides of the ball, but he still barely managed to average more rebounds on a per-minute basis than fellow one-and-done teammate Dejounte Murray, a 6-foot-5 guard. He lacks the understanding of how to establish good rebounding position, something which, should he receive immediate playing time, will get him sent back to the bench often next season.

Who Can He Be Compared To?

When you start looking for NBA comparisons for at least 6-foot-9 combo forwards with elite athleticism who declared for the draft without a huge body of work, one name jumps out:

Chriss: 13.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.6 blocks on 53 percent shooting, 35 percent from 3 (1.8 attempts), 68.5 percent from the free throw line

Marvin Williams at UNC: 11.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.5 blocks on 50.6 percent shooting, 43.2 percent from 3 (1.2 attempts), 84.7 percent from the free throw line

Chriss is the better shot blocker and Williams is the better shooter, but the ideal role for Chriss is similar to the one Williams has carved out for himself with the Charlotte Hornets. Williams was a tweener forward who wasn’t big enough to be a 4 or perimeter-oriented enough to be a 3. Being the second overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft was a curse for much of his career, but the shifting tides of the league have created a niche for him; these days, Williams is a prototypical small-ball 4.

Drafting the next Marvin Williams with a top-five pick is not a sexy elevator pitch in the slightest, but would you be interested in an Amar’e Stoudemire with elite defensive potential? Williams and Stoudemire represent the optimistic outlooks, but the pendulum can absolutely swing the other way. At worst, Chriss might resemble a version of Jeff Green who doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt after disappointing every NBA team he has been on. Tell me if these numbers from Green’s freshman season at Georgetown look familiar.

Green: 13.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.6 blocks on 50.2 percent shooting, 40 percent from 3 (1.9 attempts), 69.9 percent from the free throw line.

All three players had high ceilings entering the draft; only one ascended to stardom. Where on this spectrum does Chriss lie?

Is Chriss a Smart Decision With a Top-Five Pick?

There’s just so much we don’t know about Chriss at the moment. If he had stayed at Washington for another season as a 19-year-old sophomore, he would have a bigger body of work on his résumé and (presumably) a more developed frame. Instead, he made the probably wise decision to declare before NBA scouts started poking holes in his game.

A lot of his development will depend on what we can’t know from the outside. How much does he love the game? How much work will he put in? How will he respond to the guaranteed money? How much weight can he put on? Will he be allowed to grow into a bigger role on a team full of veterans, or will he be thrown into the fire on a young team where the inmates are running the asylum? Character counts for a lot, especially for young players with potential but no track record of consistent production.

The talent is there. The two most important skills in the modern NBA are the ability to stretch the floor and switch screens, and no one in this draft — not even Simmons or Ingram — has a better combination of those skills than Chriss. If you close your eyes, you can envision Chriss as the centerpiece of a proto–Lineup of Death in five years, when he would be the same age as some of the seniors in this year’s draft. He has the potential to do five things at a high level — block shots, switch screens, shoot 3s, roll to the rim, and post up.

“He’s the best athlete in this draft,” one talent evaluator told me a few weeks ago. “And it wouldn’t surprise me if he was the best player in the draft in five years.”

But it’s all theoretical at this stage. For as much as Chriss has improved over the past six months, he’s not ready to be an NBA-caliber starter, and he’s a long way away from being a difference-maker. Questions abound when it comes to what Marquese Chriss is as a basketball player, and it’ll take years to find our answer. But the most important question regarding Chriss’s future will be answered on Thursday night. Which GM at the top of the lottery is willing to roll the dice?