The last time the Phoenix Suns used some of their assets to “trade up”, they found a way to disprove the theory that the NBA is all about acquiring the best player in the deal no matter who else is involved.
But sometimes “salary filler and other picks to make it work” end up better than the headliners.
During the 2016 NBA Draft, minutes after the Phoenix Suns took power forward Dragan Bender, they decided they couldn’t live without the other top power forward still available in the draft and traded a number of assets the Kings to trade up from #13 to #8 and take Marquese Chriss.
Bender and Chriss were among a consensus Top 8, where most pundits believed the drop-off to #9 overall was a steep one. Indeed, the late lottery was dotted with reaches, including Thon Maker and Georgios Papagiannis, and older college guys like Taurean Prince and Denzel Valentine.
The Suns needed a power forward of the future desperately, so they doubled down to take both of the remaining available power forwards (after Ben Simmons went #1 overall), hoping to get lucky on one or both of them.
Could the Suns have taken better players at their relative draft position? Sure, you can make the case that Jamal Murray was a better option. But remember that the Suns already had the exciting Devin Booker and near All-Star Eric Bledsoe firmly entrenched in the back court going forward, along with the high priced Brandon Knight. Where would Dunn, Hield or Murray get playing time?
So, guards were not the mission in the 2016 Draft. After better fits Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, and Jaylen Brown were all taken just ahead of the Suns first pick at #4, there was only one way to go they thought.
Enter both Dragan Bender AND Marquese Chriss.
To move up from #13 to #8, the Suns had to also surrender the #28 overall pick and the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic, who’d been taken at #27 overall three years prior but had not committed to joining the NBA until he’d accomplished two milestones: (1) winning Euroleague and (2) waiting until his rookie draft restrictions were lifted so he could sign a market rate free agent contract rather than settle for just over $1 million per year as a rookie. The Suns were reportedly frustrated with Bogdan’s hesitance and were worried he wouldn’t live up to a market-rate contract in the NBA.
At #28 (the pick the Suns got for Isaiah Thomas), the Kings lucked into a free-falling Skal Labissiere, who the Suns might have taken at #13 if they hadn’t moved up. Skal was a top prospect but flubbed and floundered his freshman year at Kentucky so badly most NBA GMs wouldn’t roll the dice on him in the draft.
How did the draft turn out for the Suns?
Not good, Bob.
In his career, Skal has posted nearly identical numbers to the Suns’ Chriss. Even in head-to-head matchups, most of the time their contributions have been a wash. And that’s not even counting contributions from Georgios Papagiannis and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
That 32 point game by Skal in his rookie year continues to be his career high in a game, by far. On the other side, Chriss posted just 17 points but also had 5 blocks, 2 assists, and 2 rebounds. Since then, Chriss has marginally outplayed Skal.
Bogdan - who met both his requirements a year later and signed a $9 million per year contract with the Kings - has played better than any of them so far. Only Papa Johns ranks lower than Chriss on the post-draft scale.
What’s wrong with Quese?
On the plus side, Chriss is one of the youngest NBA players in NBA history to collect 100 each of threes, blocks and steals - all before turning 21. And he had a good stretch of games this season before suffering a hip pointer where he looked like he was ready to break out.
But on the bad side, despite being handed 75 starts as a rookie and another 40 this year so far, he still has no go-to moves outside of dunks, is painfully inconsistent on open threes and even more inconsistent on focus on both ends of the floor. To top it off, he has bad body language and complains way too much to the referees, especially when things aren’t going well.
The super-talented Chriss is as flabbergasted as the rest of us why he’s struggling so much as a sophomore after winning January Rookie of the Month (Western Conference), making the 2017 Rising Stars Challenge on All-Star Weekend and being named second-team All-Rookie last year.
“I don’t know,” Chriss said to Arizona Republic beat writer and patron saint Scott Bordow after a recent practice. “If I did, I’d probably be able to change it faster. I just think there’s some things I need to face and need to correct and just do it as fast as possible. Like I said, if I knew what it was, I’d try to change it quickly.”
Chriss gained a lot of weight over the summer — bad eating habits and cardio training, typical of a normal 20-year-old who’s not being paid several million per year to stay in top shape — and hasn’t truly gotten back into his rookie playing shape even now, five months into the 2017-18 season.
As a result, he’s been shorted on minutes many times this season and even suspended once for insubordination over cardio training requirements.
The Suns have a long-standing rule: if you play fewer than 20 minutes in a game, you are required to do 7-8 minutes of high-intensity cardio in the training room immediately after the final buzzer before icing down and showering.
Chriss skipped out on his cardio one night, then argued with the trainer when he was summoned before finally doing the cardio as required.
He has played just under the 20-minute threshold in every game since the incident except the San Antonio blowout where he played 29 garbage time minutes.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on,” Chriss told Bordow without going into detail. “I’m just trying to get the most out of the situation I’m in and just try to persevere through a lot of things that are going on.”
I wonder what stuff is going on. No longer being gifted starts and minutes without earning them first? Having to compete with an equally skilled but vastly different young power forward for minutes? Being criticized for his work ethic by the coaches and staff? Yes, yes and yes.
Chriss is a great, great kid. I’ve always been impressed when I speak to him after games or on the annual Media Day. He is self-aware about the on-court things he needs to work on and refreshingly humble.
But like all of us, he apparently has a blind spot. And his blind spot is his own body. He assumes that because he’s always been more athletic than anyone else he knew, he doesn’t have to treat his body like a temple to nurture and improve. He apparently thinks he’s already there and always will be. So imagine his shock when games and practices don’t go as easily as he thinks they will.
Hopefully one day he will wake up and realize the time is now, and that he should stop wasting it. Unfortunately, that’s not a sure thing. Lots and lots of NBA players in history never quite “got it” and dropped out of the league because they just couldn’t see what they were lacking in work ethic and dedication to their craft. Some people go their entire lives without seeing what they’re doing to themselves.
Let’s hope Chriss is among the group that wakes up, and that he does so before he’s worked his way out of Phoenix and/or the league.
Bogi, Leader of Horde
Ahh, this one’s a kick in the bad place.
Suns fans, including me, pined for Bogdan Bogdanovic since the day he was drafted, dreaming of his bold three-point shooting and passing. He really came into his own in the 2015-16 season overseas but frustrated the Suns by not coming over yet until he could lead Fenerbahce to the Euroleague title, as well as waiting till he outlived his rookie contract restrictions and could sign for market rate. Good on the Kings for grabbing him at the right time when he became available in the summer of 2017 for a 3-year, $27 million contract ($9 million per year).
As a 25 year old rookie, Bogdanovic is making 40% of his threes and dishing some nice assists. He is now in the Kings starting lineup at shooting guard ahead of Buddy Hield.
Last week, Bogdan won the MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge, making 7 three pointers on the way to 27 points for the winning World team.
Let’s hope Chriss finds himself and becomes the player he can be. And let’s hope Bogdan has a great career as well. Both he and the Kings deserve it.