When he was a youngster, Marquese Chriss’ mom reluctantly allowed him to play football. But under one strict condition.
“She was like, ‘All right, the first time you get hurt you’re not going to be able to play,’ “ Chriss said. “So I broke my finger and I didn’t tell her. They just gave me a splint and I was walking around and saying, ‘All right, I’m good, I’m just going to keep playing.’
“But when I broke my collarbone, she was done and fed up.”
Chriss broke his collarbone when he was in the eighth grade. Forced to find another sport, Chriss – as a high school freshman — turned to basketball, which he knew very little about.
“That was my first time really playing basketball, so I was real raw,” he said. “I was athletic, but I was uncoordinated. I didn’t know how to play organized basketball.
“And then they were making cuts, but they kept me just because they felt like I had good potential. I didn’t play a lot, and then later in the season they made cuts because of grades, and I ended up starting just because they cut everybody who was in front of me. And then from there they moved me up to varsity and I just ran with it.”
Chriss ran with it to the point of leading Pleasant Grove High School in Elk Grove, Calif., in suburban Sacramento to a state championship during his sophomore season. And in his senior season, Chriss averaged 21.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.1 blocks and wound up becoming one of the Top 55 recruits in the nation.
That led to a scholarship at Washington, where Chriss averaged 13.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while making the honorable mention Pac-12 All-Freshman team. After one season at Washington, Chriss declared for the NBA Draft.
Now, the 6-9, 240-pounder in his sixth season and in his first with the Dallas Mavericks.
However, this hasn’t been an easy journey for Chriss. Football was his first love, while basketball was a mere afterthought.
“I started playing football in the third grade, and my mom never wanted me to play,” Chriss said. “But her little brother and all my cousins played football, so I was like, ‘I want to play football. Basketball is soft.’ That’s what people were feeding me.”
As it turned it, Chriss is now being fed by basketball, although his basketball career took several twists and turns before he wound up on the Mavs’ doorstep. Chriss, in fact, joined the Mavs on a 10-day contract after the team was dealing with COVID-19 issues and injuries.
And in the midst of Chriss’ third 10-day contract, they had seen what they needed to see and ultimately signed the center/forward to a two-year contract on Jan. 15 that pays him $1.29 million this season and $2.19 million next season.
Way back when, Chriss was riding high as the No. 8 overall pick of the 2016 draft as an 18-year old. He was drafted by his hometown Sacramento Kings, who quickly traded him to the Phoenix Suns on draft night for Bogdan Bogdanovic and the 13th and 28th picks of the 2016 draft.
And that trade was perfectly fine with Chriss.
“I knew, maybe a couple of weeks before the draft, that if I went eighth (the Kings) were going to take me, so I kind of was already thinking about it,” Chriss said. “But at the time they had DeMarcus Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos, so I didn’t want to go there and not play.
“Phoenix was the place I wanted to go from the get. When Phoenix passed on me (with the fourth overall pick), I was kind of disappointed and I was like, ‘Damn, that was where I wanted to be.’ But they ended up figuring that out to make that work.”
As the only Suns’ player to play all 82 games during his first season in Phoenix, Chriss averaged 9.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in 21.3 minutes, and made the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. But after his second season in Phoenix, the Suns traded Chriss to the Houston Rockets, who traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 7, 2019.
After just 27 games with the Cavs, Chriss was on the move again. This time he wound up signing with the Golden State Warriors — twice.
However, Chriss was saddled by misfortune again when he suffered a fractured right leg on Dec. 26, 2020, forcing him to have surgery and miss the remainder of the season. Then, the San Antonio Spurs acquired Chriss in a trade with the Warriors last March 25, only to surprisingly waive him three days later.
From there, the Portland Trail Blazers decided to give Chriss a chance when they signed him last Sept. 23. But that was short-lived, as the Blazers waived him on Oct. 16.
The revolving door of being with so many teams in a short period of time played tricks with Chriss’ mind.
“It’s been hectic, to say the least, just all the movement,” he said. “But I think it’s part of the business.
“It’s just trying to find somewhere where I could solidify and find my niche and where I’m wanted and feel like I can be of service.”
Chriss certainly has proven that he can help solidify the Mavs’ front line. And his difficult journey to being a part of their organization has been duly noted by coach Jason Kidd.
“Being a high draft pick, I think sometimes it’s the system that a player has to find,” Kidd said. “We really believe that he fits what we’re trying to do here and we’re lucky to have him.
“But you have to give him credit, too, for his journey of not giving up and continuing to keep fighting and believing that he belongs in this league.”
To a certain degree, forward Dorian Finney-Smith can relate to what Chriss experienced. Finney-Smith was in the same draft class with Chriss, but went undrafted before he caught on with the Mavs after impressive performances in their summer league, training camp and preseason.
“I’m happy for (Chriss),” Finney-Smith said. “I talked to him and picked his brain, because I just know how tough it is coming in as a – well, I don’t know.
“But I just know it’s tough coming in as a high draft pick and haven’t really found a team to gel with. I’m just happy he stuck with it, especially after injuries. He told me when he got hurt how depressed he was or down on himself he was, so I’m just happy he got the opportunity.”
For Chriss, the difficult part following surgery on his right leg was the unknown. Particularly with this occurring during a world-wide pandemic.
“It was hard mentally and physically, especially being quarantined,” the 24-year old Chriss said. “I literally couldn’t leave the house. At first, I was working out with the (Warriors), then when they traded me I wasn’t able to go up there anymore.
“So I started working out at Kaiser three days a week, which kind of made it harder because I wasn’t getting this every day treatment that you get when you’re with an NBA team. But I think it was just part of the adversity that I had to go through. And then as soon I was able to start playing, I went up to Seattle and started working out full speed and playing and do whatever I could.”
Then, after the Mavs went through their bouts with injuries and health and safety protocols, Chriss was one of the players they signed on Dec. 21 to a 10-day contract under the NBA’s COVID-related hardship allowance. Chriss reacted to how COVID-19 impacted his life both from a positive and negative standpoint.
“It seemed like COVID did everything negative to me,” Chriss said. “I was playing well, and the season shuts down. I come back, and I break my leg and now I’m stuck in the house. And it finally happened — something good.
“It sucks that people got sick (with COVID-19), but it’s a blessing in disguise because I was given an opportunity. I think everything happens for a reason. I think everything happened to get me to where I am today, so I’m thankful for it.”
And extremely thankful that the Mavs rewarded with a two-year contract.
“The past few years I’ve kind of just been on ‘we’ll see type deals’ where I was on a two-way (contract), and then I was on a training camp deal,” Chriss said. “I was able to sign in Golden State for those two years and be there.
“But it feels good to feel as if you have a role and a spot on a team that you feel like you can be wanted. I think that’s the biggest thing for me is just feeling wanted.”
In 19 games with the Mavs, Chriss is averaging 5.9 points and 3.5 rebounds in only 11.3 minutes. And in Sunday’s contest against the Orlando Magic, he scored 14 points – one shy of his season high – and also collected a season-high four steals and two blocks in a season-high 19 minutes.
The Mavs are hoping for more of the same from Chriss during tonight’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“Even though I’m not getting a crazy amount of minutes, I’m just trying to make the most out of it when I get on the floor, because obviously they saw something that they felt I could help the team,” Chriss said. “So whether it’s cheering for my teammates or going on the floor and trying to play as hard as I can, I’m going to do whatever role I need to do to stay here.”
Now, about Chriss’ promising career in football as a tight end, defensive end and safety that was interrupted by a broken collarbone, Finney-Smith said: “I didn’t even know that. Not the football part, but I didn’t know he broke his collarbone.
“I feel like he would be a great football player. If he put on some more weight, he could be a (defensive) end or a tight end.”
Kidd took that a step farther, citing Chriss’ 6-9 height as a possible NFL tight end and said: “If he was in the right offense — the West Coast offense – he would have been open.”
Chriss, nonetheless, believes his broken collarbone was another blessing in disguise from God.
“I think about football sometimes, but I feel like I would be out there running around like (Kansas City Chiefs tight end) Travis Kelce,” Chriss said. “But I’m too big.
“I think at this point my legs are too long and that’s the only thing (NFL defenses would) be aiming for. I think basketball is the way to go.”
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