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Phoenix Suns Player of the Week: Marquese Chriss is making the most of his moment

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January’s Rookie of the Month is showing out in February

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Marquese Chriss has had his share of frustrations this year, from a developmental perspective individually, to the disappointment of the Suns’ stasis at the bottom of the standings. Yet after January Rookie of the Month honors and a 27-point game at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s a good time for a check-in, as the NBA season begins to wind down.

When discussing the growth of such a young player (especially one earning so few minutes despite being a starter by name), there are more than a few unknowns. So it’s best to start with the objective, concrete facts:

  • Chriss is an undeveloped defender. He ranks 88th out of 95 NBA power forwards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating, at -0.76.
  • Chriss fouls at an incredibly high rate. For the season, he is averaging 5.9 fouls per 36 minutes. This means that if Earl Watson were to play him the minutes of a high-quality starter, he would be expected to foul out of every contest.
  • Chriss has the statistical appearance of a “stretch four”. He’s made 40 of 128 threes this year, good for a 31.8% rate that is only slightly below league average.

Now, to back up those points, in case bulleted lists aren’t the key to tickling your persuaded bone, I’ll break down each one further, with video from this week’s games.

Playing defense like a 19-year old

As The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks pointed out before the draft in June, Marquese Chriss fouled out of almost every important game he played in his lone season at Washington. Even when he didn’t get to that fifth foul, he spent many games near that mark, forcing Washington coach Lorenzo Romar to manipulate the rotation. One would also assume the style (especially defensively) that Chriss played was affected by the fear of picking up fouls and having to leave the game.

After fifty games in his rookie year, while there is reason for optimism, it’s still clear that the way he uses his body isn’t to the level it must be for a big man to provide defensive value. Some of that is a lack of physical development that will come with an NBA training staff, but some of it is more nuanced and worrisome than that.

Take a look here at how he attempts to deal with Greg Monroe:

The book on Monroe is that you have to make him uncomfortable and force him into a longer shot, avoiding a layup as much as possible. It takes one move after backing into Chriss for Monroe to dump an easy shot into the hoop.

However, whereas fellow project Dragan Bender projects as a floor-reader and a more physical defensive presence, Chriss can change the game with a play or two like this:

Defense is about familiarity and focus, even for veteran players. Chriss has shown enough to start to settle the concerns some had about him, but he is still considerably far away from what he might someday become.

The key to “five-out” offense

Lots of people who know things about the Suns eyed their potential future as a “five-out” offense similar in name to what the Atlanta Hawks ran over the last few seasons, but different because it might feature five legitimate 3-point shooters. Something like Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, T.J. Warren (whose own shooting is still a work in progress), Dragan Bender and Chriss could someday be devastating.

Just as Chriss’ more explosive potential on defense looks like an ideal fit next to Bender’s cerebral, patient style, the same is true on offense. While having five players who can all shoot on the court at the same time seems really effective in theory, any great offense needs efficient paint finishers to jump to the next level. Chriss can eventually get to that level.

Right now, he’s taking advantage of the considerable space the defense is giving him at his station in the corner when the Suns run pick-and-rolls:

Eventually, though, you’d like Chriss to develop a plan B in those situations; maybe driving and attacking closeouts or a stronger post-up game. That would prevent teams from switching smaller players onto him or doing what the Bucks did on Saturday night, stationing Giannis Antetokounmpo in that corner and unleashing him into the paint from the weak side, ignoring Chriss in the process.

However:

Don’t dismiss his 27-point night as garbage time stat-stuffing. Toward the end of the fourth quarter, as things started to loosen up, Chriss stayed aggressive and flashed quick shotmaking that was out of the ordinary for him.

Perhaps it took until February 4th to earn his January Rookie of the Month honor, but Chriss certainly looks improved over the early-season version of the young power forward, when the occasional alley-oop was all there was to get excited about. If Ryan McDonough’s recent comments about getting the younger players more court time in the latter part of the season are honest, Chriss stands as one of the players who could benefit most. The intersection of development and opportunity could mean 27 points in a blowout loss is far from the high point of his first NBA season.