Washington Huskies

Marquese Chriss could be key to Huskies’ future — if he doesn’t go pro

Washington forward Marquese Chriss, right, reacts as he dunks the ball for a basket over Colorado forward Kenan Guzonjic in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Boulder, Colo.
Washington forward Marquese Chriss, right, reacts as he dunks the ball for a basket over Colorado forward Kenan Guzonjic in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Boulder, Colo. AP

These must be stressful times for Marquese Chriss.

Along with the rest of his Washington Huskies teammates, the 18-year-old freshman is preparing for Monday’s second-round NIT game at San Diego State. Also, he is projected by some outlets as a potential NBA draft pick this summer, should he choose to pursue such aspirations in lieu of a sophomore season at UW.

Unsurprisingly, this is not a subject he prefers to discuss publicly. He’ll decide, some time after this season ends, when he decides.

Can’t blame him, really. His time is currently occupied by basketball, school and more important pursuits with roommates Matisse Thybulle, Dominic Green and Devenir Duruisseau.

“Recently,” said Chriss, the 6-foot-9 forward with the go-go-gadget vertical leap, “we’ve been baking cookies.”

He clarifies: they’re actually called “pizookies,” a clever amalgamation of the words “pie” and “cookie,” and they look about how you might imagine. Fellow UW freshman Dejounte Murray ordered one during a team meal at the popular chain restaurant BJ’s, photographed it, then sent it to Chriss via Snapchat.

“So I was like, ‘OK, we’ve got to make them,’ ” Chriss said. “We went to the store and got the pie sheets, then you put the cookie dough in there, and it just spreads out like a big cookie. Then you put ice cream on it and just eat it.”

This seems to be Chriss at his most authentic. He’s an athletic, long-armed highlight reel who batters basketball hoops with frequent alley-oop jams and soon could draw a seven-figure salary as a professional. But get him in a room, sit him down and ask him about his childhood hobbies, and he will laugh and tell you about how he and his sisters used to fly plastic grocery bags in the air and chase them down the street.

In other words, he’s not unlike most dudes his age. And he’s somewhat of an introvert. And “so compliant,” and “really easy to raise,” says his mother, Shawntae Wright.

“And he’s really motivated,” she said. “He’s kind. I want people to know that about Marquese.”

Also, she wants you to know that Marquese does not text her about basketball. Marquese texts her, for example, to tell her how pleased he was to give his lunch to a homeless man. On Friday nights, Shawntae says, her son was more likely to visit and sit with his great-grandparents — “poppy and nanny,” he calls them — than hang out with his friends.

And as impressive as he’s been on the basketball court this season — per-game averages of 13.6 points and 5.4 rebounds make him one of UW’s most important players — he has still only hinted at his full potential.

That’s mostly because Chriss grew up wanting to play football, and he did until eighth grade, when he broke his collarbone after catching a pass and landing awkwardly.

Mom wrapped his arm in her cardigan, drove him to urgent care, learned the extent of the injury and told her son that, uh, maybe he should play basketball instead.

Scratch that. There was no “maybe” about it.

“I was really mad when I couldn’t play football anymore,” Chriss said. “But it was like, what can I do? What mom says goes. So I might as well still play a sport.”

His basketball experience at that time was limited mostly to pickup games at the park, save for one season of youth ball at age 5. But he was tall and athletic and the older kids always wanted him on their team, so he took to the game well enough.

“He was built for basketball,” Wright said.

He started by joining a friend’s AAU team the summer after eighth grade, forged a relationship with his high school’s freshman coach and tried out for the freshman team.

At first, he said, he was “goofy” on the court, with large feet and skinny legs. He hadn’t grown into his body. He had to develop his court presence and refine his skills.

And he did. That midrange jumper he shoots so fluidly? He worked on it with a trainer named Jared Waters, whom he met after his sophomore year, about the time Chriss actually started working out instead of “just playing,” as he put it.

Chriss began to get his bearings on the court, began to understand how high he could jump, how easily he could dunk and block shots. His prep career blossomed at Pleasant Grove High School (in the Sacramento, California, area), and if you want to see a skinny kid dunk and dunk and dunk, run a YouTube search for Chriss’ highlights.

Washington was one of the first schools to offer him a scholarship. He took unofficial visits to California and UNLV, and enjoyed them, but his only official visit was to UW.

He’d visited Seattle before, he said, when he was about 6 years old. His stepdad, Michael Wright, grew up in the Tacoma area, and speaks highly of the Pacific Northwest. Shawntae and Michael accompanied Chriss on his visit to UW and the three “fell in love,” with the campus, Shawntae said.

“I knew that Marquese would get what he needed there,” she said. “Academically, and for basketball.”

His freshman season has opened eyes, though it has not come without challenges. Few players are more laid-back off the court than Chriss, but he’s a different person when he’s playing. He is emotional. He talks mess. He is often bothered by officials’ calls that he perceives as incorrect. He used to get down on himself, coach Lorenzo Romar says, when something didn’t go his way in practice or a game.

And he too often fell victim to fouls born of frustration. (He is also self-aware: Asked earlier this season about areas of needed improvement, Chriss replied that he needs to learn when to keep his mouth shut.)

But he seems to have a better handle on all that now. He visited a UW sports psychologist to help control his emotions, keeping a journal and learning ways to self-check when he feels himself getting too angry during a game. He stopped fouling as much, too — after racking up 11 disqualifications in UW’s first 20 games, he has fouled out of only three games since.

“I can’t hurt myself and my team by just being pissed off the whole game,” Chriss said.

His competitive passion still occasionally manifests in negative ways — he was assessed a technical foul for arguing with an official during UW’s March 2 victory over Washington State — but his mom has noticed a difference.

“I just think that his expressions stay consistent,” Shawntae said.

It’s “pretty amazing” to hear her son’s name discussed in NBA draft conversations, she said, though she says she’s probably more excited about all of it than Chriss is.

“I think what I’m most proud of is how he’s handling it,” she said. “He’s handling it so well. He’s just being so calm and just taking it as it comes.”

Chriss’ upcoming decision is a source of anxiety for Huskies fans. It’s difficult to forecast UW’s future without knowing whether it will include Chriss, who would be one of the Pac-12’s top returning players if he stays for another season.

Shawntae says she’s a good researcher, and unafraid to ask questions, so it seems her son will be well-advised.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “I want Marquese to do what’s best for Marquese.”

Huskies gameday

Washington (19-14) at San Diego State (26-9), NIT second round

8:30 p.m. Monday, Viejas Arena, San Diego

TV: ESPN2. Radio: 1000-AM/97.7-FM

All-time series: Washington leads, 3-1.

Projected starters

Statistics for 2015-16

SAN DIEGO STATE

4  Dakarai Allen, G (6-5, jr.): 6.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg

12 Trey Kell, G (6-4, so.): 12.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg

13 Winston Shepard, F (6-8, sr.): 11.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg

0  Skylar Spencer, F (6-10, sr.): 3.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.8 bpg

21 Malik Pope, F (6-10, so.): 7.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg

WASHINGTON

12 Andrew Andrews, G (6-2, r-sr.): 21.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.8 apg

5  Dejounte Murray, G (6-4 1/2, fr.): 16.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.4 apg

4  Matisse Thybulle, G (6-5, fr.): 6.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg

10 Malik Dime, F (6-9, jr.): 7.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.6 bpg

0  Marquese Chriss, F (6-9, fr.): 13.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg

Scouting report: This game will feature contrasting styles. San Diego State’s stout man-to-man defense — maybe the most effective in the country — forces a slower pace than Washington prefers to play, so the Huskies are going to have their hands full trying to run and score in transition. The Aztecs lead the nation in defensive field-goal percentage and grade among the nation’s best in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rankings. They may start three players 6-foot-8 or taller, as they did in last week’s 79-55 first-round NIT victory over IPFW. … Jeremy Hemsley, a guard who started 25 games this season and is the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.3 points per game, was named the Mountain West Freshman of the Year. … SDSU’s roster still includes Arizona transfer Angelo Chol, though he averages only 13.5 minutes per game. … The Aztecs are not a strong offensive team. They rank 193rd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, and rank 279th in effective field-goal percentage (UW ranks 244th in that category, for what it’s worth, and 108th in adjusted offensive efficiency). … The Huskies have played at Viejas Arena twice before — a 92-81 victory in December 2003 and a 70-63 loss in December 2013.

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