Not long after the Warriors’ first preseason game, there was a meeting somewhere in the bowels of Chase Center. It wasn’t a meeting, sources said, as much as it was a petition, a reiteration, an emphasis, to Warriors general manager Bob Myers. The request was simple in scope. Yet, it was also profound, considering it included an important voice in the locker room, considering it was about a player many have given up on.
The request? Get Marquese Chriss on this team.
Chriss played only 13 minutes in the preseason opener. But it was enough to make it clear he should be on the roster.
The Warriors’ salary cap situation is complex thanks to the hard cap placed on them as a result of the sign-and-trade to get D’Angelo Russell. But that’s why this postgame plea was important. The message: This player is too good, and the need too great, to let collective bargaining agreement limitations get in the way.
“I think being in this situation is probably the best fit that I’ve been in and the most comfortable I’ve felt,” Chriss said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I wasn’t looking at it as, ‘I’m not on the team.’ I’m just looking at it as, ‘this is where I want to be at,’ so I’m going to show them this is where I should be.”
The Warriors and Chriss may have found each other at the right time.
The Warriors are in the middle of a reboot. They flipped half the roster. Their stars are consuming so much of the cap, they need to find good, cheap talent. The kind of talent with growth potential that’s only available because of its imperfections.
Chriss is in the middle of a reboot, too. He was the No. 8 pick in 2016, by Phoenix, and was seen as highly promising, ripe for stardom. But three years and three months later, he was in need of a fresh start and running low on options. He was a forgotten commodity among fans, thrown into a heap of draft busts.
So the Warriors need him, and he needs the Warriors.
“I think he’s been great all training camp,” Draymond Green said. “He’s been on a couple teams, and everybody has kind of written him off. But he’s been amazing in camp, and to me it looked like he’s figuring it out and he’s turning a corner.”
The Warriors need a center, especially with Willie Cauley-Stein out for at least a month. They also need a starting small forward, arguably the most important position in the game. But more than both of those, they need talent and versatility.
When they had four All-Stars, they had the luxury of being able to have a guy on the roster who does one or two things. But with the players they have lost — Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson out for months — they are a bit desperate for talent and versatility. They need growth potential. They need someone who can come off the bench and impact the game. Looking at what the Warriors have on the bench, and in camp, Chriss is the one player who jumps out from that perspective.
And when else will the Warriors get their hands on a 22-year-old lottery pick for the price of a minimum salary? They probably can’t afford to let this one walk. Not at this transitional point in their franchise.
Chriss is 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot wingspan and a vertical jump of 38.5 inches. It’s like he was engineered to play forward in the NBA. He’s got nice touch on his jumper, which stretches out to 3-point range. He also has enough handle to do something with an explosive first step, going left and right. He has a good feel for the game: understands spacing, moving without the ball, manipulating the defense with his positioning.
He has the tools to defend, though that hasn’t been his calling card. He can block some shots with his length and explosiveness, and he’s good at closing out on the perimeter. He’d be the perfect project for the Warriors’ player development staff, especially with Ron Adams now in a development role.
“He’s shown a lot of athleticism and he’s a great kid,” coach Steve Kerr said. “He still wants to learn and is asking questions, and I think the players like playing with him. He’s pretty good in high screen-and-roll, running dribble handoffs. He knows what he’s doing, so I think he’s a really intriguing prospect.”
The Warriors need a player who has the size and athleticism to play, especially defend, all three front-court positions. Currently, the only player who can do that productively is Green. The rest are either too small to thrive in the paint or don’t have the quickness and skills to hang on the perimeter. They need someone between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-11 with some explosiveness who can finish at the rim and contest a shot, and with the skills to handle the ball and make an open shot. They had all of that and so much more in Durant. While they can’t replace him, they still need a player who can do some of those functions.
That was evident against the Lakers. Whoever the Warriors threw at LeBron James and Anthony Davis was either too small for those stars or not athletic enough to have a shot on the perimeter. LeBron just bullied Alfonzo McKinnie; Davis did the same to Jacob Evans. And the Warriors didn’t have any options outside of Green.
Kevon Looney and Cauley-Stein were injured. Either could’ve offered Davis some form of resistance inside, instead of making him look like Wilt Chamberlain at a youth camp. But it’s a tall order to ask them to get out on the wing and defend in space or navigate screens.
LeBron and Davis will make most defenses feel relatively helpless. But they aren’t alone. The NBA is full of small forwards who move to power forward in small lineups, or power forwards who can step out to the perimeter. The reigning MVP is Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Ben Simmons is a matchup nightmare in Philadelphia. Dallas now has Kristaps Porzingis with Luka Dončić. Danilo Gallinari, now with Oklahoma City, has torched the Warriors in the past. Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson figure to make New Orleans a tough matchup for the Warriors. At some point, they’ll have to face Durant.
Chriss isn’t the answer to stopping any of the above. He does, however, fit a glaring hole on the roster.
But if that’s the case, why is this his best option?
“I was a young hot-headed little kid,” Chriss said. “I think that’s how I look at it. I think early I was just playing strictly off emotion and things like that and just trying to find my way and just wasn’t really containing myself. But I think that I’m mentally stronger than I give myself credit for. I think I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been through some things that people might quit over, people might lose the drive to keep going. But I feel like I’ve kept going and I’ve kept pushing to try to be where I wanna be.”
In his first three years as a pro, Chriss developed a reputation that overshadowed his obvious talent. He had problems in Phoenix because of his attitude.
He had a productive rookie season under then-Suns coach Earl Watson. He played all 82 games, starting 75 of them and averaged 9.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per game. He shot 44.9 percent from the field and 32.1 percent from 3. Phoenix was 24-58 that season, but Chriss was one of the young talents who was expected to blossom in the Valley of the Sun. But it all went downhill from there.
Chriss clashed with Jay Triano, who replaced Watson as head coach four games into Chriss’ sophomore season. Body language and mood was a common critique. Chriss even knew it was a problem. He has discussed his issues with his temper publicly.
The Suns gave up on nurturing his talent and traded him to Houston. He then requested a trade out of the Rockets, where he averaged 6.5 minutes in 16 games, and they shipped him to Cleveland. After finishing the year with the Cavaliers, Chriss had scarce options entering this season. Some teams were willing to put him on a two-way contract, but no one had a guaranteed roster spot with his name on it.
But Chriss being in camp with the Warriors is, in his mind, evidence of how much he has grown. Despite the lack of prospects, he said he is feeling as good as ever. He spent the summer getting his mind and body right. He had a chef all summer making sure he ate healthy and was ready for wherever he landed. He took the Warriors invitation to training camp, despite them not having a roster spot, because his confidence is soaring.
There is no guarantee it is going to pan out. His temper and frustrations could flare up, robbing him of the peace and comfort he now exudes. But the Warriors, despite being hard-capped, might need to find out. That would require getting rid of someone on the roster — waiving McKinnie, who is really liked in the locker room, because he is the only non-guaranteed contract holding a roster spot, or trading someone into another team’s space. Chriss has already got people in his corner pushing for that to happen.
“I’ve heard good things, positive things from the coaches,” Chriss said. “I’m just trying to stay open-minded and keep being coached. Whether or not it works out here, I was able to come here and learn some things that I would be able to take other places. I think at the end of the day, my goal was to show them that this was where I should be and put the pressure on them.”
— Reported from San Francisco
(Photo: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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