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Suns hope rookie big men mold into solid foundation

Phoenix will show patience with lottery picks in Bender, Chriss

POSTED: Sep 4, 2016 7:48 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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Phoenix expects growing pains from its rookie core of (from left) Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis.

The NBA Draft was approaching in June, and the Suns were facing a difficult choice among teenaged forwards. Would they invest their No. 4 pick in the length and skills of 7-1 Dragan Bender, or in the athletic potential of 6-10 Marquese Chriss? The Suns went for Bender.

But that didn't mean they were giving up on Chriss.

"It's an idea we came up with on the morning of the draft, once we had more information about who was likely to go where," said Phoenix GM Ryan McDonough. "We felt like if the Celtics took Jaylen Brown at No. 3, which they did, and we took either Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss, the next three picks would be guards. That's exactly the way it happened: Kris Dunn to Minnesota, Buddy Hield to New Orleans and Jamal Murray to Denver.''

The Suns had been discussing a potential trade for the No. 8 pick of Sacramento in the week prior to the draft. "It's really hard to acquire picks in the mid-lottery," said McDonough, who was offering the No. 13 pick as part of the exchange. "We knew Sacramento would consider dropping down from 8 to 13 if we made it worth their while. But both teams wanted to get on the clock in the draft to see who was still available on the board.''

On deadline the Kings would cede No. 8 in exchange for the rights to pick Georgios Papagiannis at No. 13, Skal Labissiere at No. 28, center Bogdan Bogdanovic and a future second-rounder. And so, within 20 minutes of selecting Bender, the Suns were also acquiring Chriss.

"We took Dragan and said, let's see what we can do to get No. 8 and get both of them," said McDonough. "We think those two guys are perfect for the modern NBA, where athleticism and shooting and defensive versatility is at a premium, and they were the two best guys in the draft at those things.''

Now Phoenix is entering the season with a high-upside rookie frontcourt. The future is bright and its consummation is far away.

Watson uses experience as teaching tool

Earl Watson, who finished last season as the Suns' interim coach for 33 games before being hired full-time in April, is like a preacher. He lays his hands on you as he speaks.

"I'm all about touch," said Watson, the 37-year-old former point guard. "It's a conscious thing. I learned that through failure.''

In college he had tried it the other way.

"When I was at UCLA, I was aggressive with everyone," said Watson, a second-round pick who would play 13 years with a half-dozen NBA franchises. "But then I realized Jerome Moiso can't take the same way I speak to him as Dan Gadzuric. Baron Davis, I could grab his jersey and yell at him and snarl at him and he'll play better. Jerome Moiso, I've got to be like, 'Hey J, we need you, baby.' And then he's going to play better. 'Don't worry about the last couple of shots, you'll play great. We love you. Let's go.'

"So I learned the hard way because in my first two years, I was so aggressive, I wasn't leading my team in the right direction. I was killing their spirits. So now I've learned throughout the years and through great teachers in my life that the touch is always good, the word is powerful and the vision has to be very vivid.''

His rookie frontcourt is going to need all of the sincerity and vision their coach can provide. Chriss, 19, has been playing basketball competitively for five years, ever since his mother banned him from playing football after he suffered a broken collarbone as an eighth-grader in Sacramento. Bender, an 18-year-old Croatian, has never played for a team in America, and barely made it off the bench last season with Maccabi Tel Aviv.

After going 9-24 last year, Watson will be charged with developing his high-end draft picks while also improving the bottom line. Rarely in the NBA can both ends be achieved at the same time. But when it was suggested that the Suns are likely to suffer through several painful seasons before realizing the potential of Bender and Chriss, Watson preached optimism.

"I don't agree with any of that. I don't think bringing out our potential is hard. I don't think it's a challenge. I think it's a great opportunity. We are not dreamers," he said of himself and his coaching staff. "We are visionaries with means.

"So when you stumble, you fall, we're always going to be there to catch you," he said, as he reached out to touch your arm. "We're not coaches," he went on, turning to face you. "We don't know anyone on our staff who wants to coach. We want teachers. And the difference between coaching and teaching is that a coach tells you, get back, get back, get back! Get to the screen! Teachers say, 'Hey, this is how you run that. This is the technique of getting through a screen. This is the mindset of a basketball player.' This is what you look for -- the development of the mind, heart and soul.''

Blending in styles

They should be able to play together eventually. Bender, nimble but not explosive vertically, has the length and speed to defend multiple positions along with the makings of 3-point range. Chriss is a leaper with the athletic potential to remind fans of Amaré Stoudemire. The difference, of course, is that Stoudemire was ready in 2002 to average 13.5 points and 8.8 rebounds as a Phoenix rookie before averaging 20.6 in his second year. It is not fair to expect nearly so much of Chriss.

"That guy can play above the rim, he can shoot threes and he can handle the ball really well for his size," said Watson. "He's a baby. They're both babies. We tell him, 'We know you're going to be great. We love that you give us your heart. You two together, with a young and budding Devin Booker, you can't tell me we're not on to something great.' But right now, we have to surrender to the journey. Surrender to the now. We have to implement the steps, the details. Put in the work. Put in the development. Put in the love more than the accountability. That's all about love. We'll be accountable for what we teach you. But what you don't know yet? It's okay, we love you no matter what.''

In other words, they are going to live with his mistakes. There figure to be a lot of them. Chriss was known for losing concentration in his single year at Washington, even as he was averaging 13.7 points, blocking 1.6 shots and shooting 35% from the 3-point line. He is a prodigy who will be pushed this season.

"I don't think there's a lot of maturity issues with him, in my opinion," said McDonough. "He's inexperienced. This is all very new to him. But when you talk to him, he's a pretty bright kid with a good head on his shoulders. His mother's a very smart woman, she's a social worker and she's done a great job raising Marquese. If you watched him throughout the year, I think you saw the progression at Washington. Starting the year, he struggled, didn't have a lot of good games. Then in the middle of the year, it was about every other game that he played well, then he didn't play well. And then toward the end of the year, the good games far outnumbered the games where he struggled.''

Marquese Chriss - Summer League Highlights

Check out Suns rookie Marquese Chriss' highlights from the Las Vegas Summer League.

Chriss plays with unusual upright posture, which reminds Watson of LaMarcus Aldridge's running style. "When I was young, I used to slouch a lot," Chriss said. "That became an emphasis, to stand up straight, and then I found my posture.''

"He's always got his head up and his body -- potentially - in good position," said McDonough. "He's still learning where to be on the court, but he does some instinctive things. You have to remember, he's so new to the game, with the growth we've seen over the last year-plus and the growth potential going forward.''

Bender, by contrast, is known for playing hard at all times. "He left home at 12 years old," said McDonough. "Even though he's only 18, he's been a pro for six years.''

At 12, Bender was a point guard at the basketball academy in Split, Croatia, that was run by longtime European big man Nikola Vujčić. As team manager of Maccabi, Vujčić helped bring Bender to Israel two seasons ago. He was unable to earn steady time last year as Maccabi struggled through a difficult season.

"But we've been watching this kid for a long time, back when he was on the Croatian international team," McDonough said. "He was playing in an 18-year-old age group at 16 or 17 years old, and he was dominant playing up a year or two. The size and skill is there. You can see the feel for the game, how his body will take a little time to get stronger, and I think that will help with his shooting as he adjusts to the NBA line. But he's got a lot of things you can't teach, and a very aggressive, tenacious mindset.''

Dragan Bender - Summer League Highlights

Check out Suns rookie Dragan Bender's highlights from the Las Vegas Summer League.

Bender has the makings of a stretch 4 with the versatility to guard multiple positions, which would enable him to remain on the floor with big or small lineups. But Watson hinted that Bender -- who must mature physically in order to compete in the NBA paint -- sees himself initially as a small forward.

"Bender is a small forward with power forward potential," Watson said. "The safe thing to do is put him at the power forward position. But when you really get to know a player, and you get to know the player before you structure him into what you're wishing he'll be, you have to learn the player's heart, his ambition and his vision. His vision is to play on the perimeter but also to play on the block, or being a pick-and-pop 4. So we tell him, we believe in you. We believe in your vision. We embrace you. We're falling in love with you every day. Our purpose is to make your dreams come true through what we do.''

The Suns are clearly hoping to play through Bender, who can shoot and handle from the perimeter as well as pass one-handed off the dribble. Chriss looks like more of an outright finisher, and so the diversity of their styles may enable them to play together, even though both look as if they'll turn into power forwards as they mature.

Laying foundation for new culture

The Suns have experience in the backcourt -- 26 year old Eric Bledsoe (20.4 ppg) and 24 year old Brandon Knight (19.6) return as their leading scorers from last season -- and Devin Booker at 19 looks like their best player after averaging 13.8 points as a rookie last season.

"What strikes a lot of people about Devin is all the other stuff he can do -- he's really developed his ball handling, his pick and roll game, he thinks the game at a high level," McDonough said. "But I'll be honest, we had no idea he'd be able to do this much, this quickly. Devin has done unbelievably well not just on the court but representing the franchise in the community as well. He was a bright spot for us in a difficult year.''

Will they be able to grow Bender and Chriss alongside Booker? Will 5-10 rookie point guard Tyler Ulis -- taken in the second round after two years at Kentucky -- emerge as a leader of the second unit? That is the jackpot mission in Phoenix, and it depends on the blending of elder leaders like Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley, P.J. Tucker and Leandro Barbosa, all in their 30s.

"We made some prospect decisions over the last year and a half that have been painful in the short term, but I think they will help us long-term in terms of the culture we're trying to build," McDonough said. "We're trying to add high character guys to our organization who play the right way, sacrifice for each other and play unselfishly.''

As Bender and Chriss develop, will they view one another as competitors for minutes -- or as partners with the potential to complement and help one another?

"He's a really good dude," said Chriss of Bender. "He's quiet but he's cool to talk to. I like being on the floor with him. He really stretches the floor, and I can feed the ball out to him. I think our length is going to cause problems.''

"We spent some time after the draft in Phoenix and then in San Diego, we had some workouts, and he's a pretty good guy," said Bender of Chriss. "A big thing for us is we are both athletic enough where we both can switch on anything. I think that's a good start for us and our future.''

And that is the key phrase, isn't it? This is the good start to a story that will require a long and patient attention span.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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