PHOENIX (AP) — Marquese Chriss wanted to play in Phoenix but figured his chance had passed when the Suns used the No. 4 overall pick of the NBA draft on Dragan Bender.
Chriss’ agent told him the next few teams would likely be taking guards, so the athletic forward turned his focus toward Sacramento. He grew up just north of the California capitol in Pleasant Grove, so his sister was ecstatic when the Kings took him with the No. 8 overall pick.
Hold on, Chriss told his sister, you never know what might happen.
He was right. Not long after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced the Kings had selected Chriss, his rights were shipped to Phoenix. He would play for the Suns after all.
“It was a crazy turn of events that I ended up here,” Chriss said Friday at an introductory news conference with Bender and second-round pick Tyler Ulis. “When they picked him (Bender), I was like, ‘dang, guess I’m going somewhere else,’ and they worked some type of magic and I ended up here.”
It certainly was some crafty maneuvering by the Suns on Thursday night.
Phoenix’s brass debated whether to take Bender or Chriss with the fourth overall pick before deciding on the 7-foot-1 forward from Bosnia. They continued to work the back channels and reached a deal with the Kings, sending the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic along with the Nos. 13 and 28 picks in the draft to Sacramento to get Chriss.
The 18-year-olds give Phoenix two athletic, multidimensional players at a position of need and a seemingly bright future with young players like Devin Booker and Brandon Knight — along with Eric Bledsoe — already on the roster.
“These are two unique guys,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said. “You don’t find many players with their size and skill and athleticism.”
Both have huge upsides.
Bender didn’t get to showcase his skills much with Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he averaged 5.5 points on a veteran team last season. Still, his athletic ability jumped out, from finishing at the rim, shooting from the perimeter and passing in traffic.
Chriss struggled at the start of his freshman season at Washington, particularly with foul trouble. The 6-foot-10 forward got better as the season progressed, confidently dropping shots from the outside and soaring well above the rim for rebounds and dunks.
They will have the benefit of learning on the job together, something Chriss experienced with all the freshmen that arrived together at Washington last year.
“It’s beneficial because you grow together, you learn things together and have experiences that no one really has had,” Chriss said. “You grow up and kind of mature together when you’re competing against each other every day.”
Ulis had expected to be taken much earlier than he was.
The SEC player of the year was once considered a lottery pick before slipping to being projected in the middle of the first round. He continued to fall as this year’s draft drew near, teams afraid to take a chance on a 5-foot-9, 160-pound point guard until the Suns grabbed him at No. 34 overall.
“The skills he brings as a point guard, size doesn’t really matter,” said Suns coach Earl Watson, a former undersized NBA point guard. “The old point guard of posting up with Gary Payton, with Mark Jackson, that doesn’t exist. Pace is everything. You talk about who can he guard? Well, who’s going to guard him? It goes both ways.”
Ulis should feel comfortable in the desert with all the Kentucky blue sprinkled across Phoenix’s roster.
Booker was Ulis’ teammate in Lexington and already has a year of NBA experience under his belt after leaving Kentucky early. Knight went to the Final Four with Kentucky in 2010-11, Bledsoe played under John Calipari during the 2009-10 season and Archie Bradley had another one-and-done season in Lexington in 2012-13, giving Phoenix five players from one school.
“It’s already a family atmosphere here,” Ulis said. “I think it’s going to be pretty easy.”