After suffering a shoulder injury playing football, Marquese Chriss takes to basketball and thrives in high school and during his freshman season with the Huskies.

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Even though Marquese Chriss towered over almost every other fifth grader on the field, Shawntae Wright wasn’t thrilled about her oldest son playing football. However, he pleaded and badgered her until she reluctantly agreed.

For three years, he showed promise as a tight end, defensive end and safety until her worst fears were realized.

During a game his eighth-grade season, Chriss landed awkwardly on his shoulder while attempting to catch a long pass and broke his collarbone. That’s when Wright made what she called an executive decision.

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“I said you’re not playing football anymore,” Wright said. “I’m happy to sign you up for basketball. Try it out. And that was all she wrote.”

That decision put Chriss on the path to basketball stardom.

Five years later, he has blossomed into a freshman star at the University of Washington. The 6-foot-9 forward is tabbed as one of the young standouts in the Pac-12, and a string of stellar performances late in the season has put him on the 2016 NBA draft radar.

If not for the shoulder injury, Chriss – who can throw a football 75 yards – might be preparing for spring football practice and not finishing one of the finest freshman seasons in UW history.

“I miss it, but I don’t think it fits me anymore,” Chriss said when asked about football. “I think basketball is more for me and it’s the thing that I should do.”

And yet, Chriss’ basketball career nearly ended before it began.

In his first year at Pleasant Grove High School in Sacramento, Calif., he was one of 25 kids who arrived at tryouts. The school didn’t have a freshman team, and junior-varsity coach Sheridan Crite needed 12 players to fill out a roster.

“At that time, I had four what you would call big men, and Marquese was the fourth one that was over 6 foot,” Crite said. “It was a numbers game. Marquese almost didn’t make it, but his energy and effort stood out.”

Chriss had never played organized basketball before and admittedly his knowledge about the sport was limited. Still, he made the cut – just barely.

He started the season as a reserve and slowly began to develop as everyone pushed him to be more assertive.

Midway through the season, Chriss had his breakout moment when he stole a pass and finished the play with a crowd-pleasing dunk at Ponderosa High.

“It was unusual for a freshman and it was unusual for Marquese because at the time his character and his demeanor was real quiet,” Crite said. “He was real shy. But at that moment, he was like I’m taking this opportunity. He went up, the crowd was like whoa and that was it.”

Chriss finished the season starting for the JV team.

The next season, the rising sophomore sensation started for Pleasant Grove’s varsity team that finished 28-6. The Eagles won the Northern California Regional title and became the first school in the area to capture the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division I state championship.

Soon after Chriss began to attract college recruiters. Northern Arizona was the first school to offer a scholarship. San Diego State, Boise State and Loyola Marymount also showed interest.

In the summer of 2013, Washington was one of the first schools from a major conference to seriously recruit Chriss. He took an unofficial visit to UNLV and California before making a trip to UW.

A week later, he verbally committed to the Huskies with a tweet on Jan. 13, 2014.

“I’ve never seen anyone develop so quickly,” said John DePonte, who coached for 22 years, including six at Pleasant Grove before retiring in 2014. “Marquese went from almost being cut, to sitting on the bench to being a go-to guy as a sophomore in the state finals and now a Division I player with a future at the next level.”

Chriss, who has started every game this season, had a phenomenal start at Washington. He scored a season-high 29 points in the second game against Mount St. Mary’s.

In the following weeks his production dipped because he developed a habit of collecting unnecessary fouls. He fouled out of three straight nonconference games during the Battle 4 Atlantis in November, when Wright stepped in once again with a decision that likely saved his season.

She suggested Chriss consult a sports psychologist, and the Huskies accommodated her request.

“I think that should just be a part of the process,” said Wright, a licensed clinical social worker. “I believe in that. I think everyone can use counseling at different points in their lives when they’re adjusting.

“Given that he was a freshman, he was away from home for the first time. The new rules with college basketball that are a little bit stricter, I just thought it doesn’t hurt to talk to someone.”

Chriss agreed.

“She helped a lot, but I haven’t met with her lately because we made a lot of progress then I slowly stopped meeting with her,” he said. “But we’ll still text.

“She was somebody to talk to. It was more how to handle myself and not about the game specifically.”

It took awhile, but Chriss, who leads the nation with 12 disqualifications, realized he had to learn how to play defense without fouling.

“It kind of just clicked,” he said. “I’m more locked in. I’m not just standing straight up in the wrong position that leads to fouls. I started to realize that it doesn’t help me and it doesn’t help my team if I’m sitting on the bench.”

After a miserable outing on Jan. 16 at Arizona State when he logged just 17 minutes and four points before fouling out, Chriss is averaging 17.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while shooting 60.1 percent from the field in the past eight games.

During that stretch, the Huskies are 3-5 and their NCAA tournament hopes are fading.

Chriss doesn’t dwell too much on postseason aspirations. He knows Washington (15-10, 7-6 Pac-12) needs a win to snap a three-game losing streak, but refuses to focus on anything other than Thursday’s 8 p.m. game against California (17-8, 7-5) at Alaska Airlines Arena.

UW’s Marquese Chriss discusses how the team is preparing to face Cal.

Chriss downplayed the matchup against Golden Bears star freshman guard Jaylen Brown and forward Ivan Rabb – a pair of projected lottery picks in the 2016 draft.

But he admittedly gets fired up when battling with the best in basketball.

“Honestly, I embrace it and I love it that somebody is willing to challenge me,” he said. “It makes you better. I like it. It brings out a fire in me that I like.”

With three weeks remaining in the regular season, Chriss is trying not to get distracted by draft rumors that peg him as one of the hottest prospects in the nation.

In his latest mock draft, ESPN’s Chad Ford projects Chriss will be the No. 14 pick in the 2016 NBA draft. Ford writes: “He’s very raw still. But his length, athleticism and versatility have scouts drooling. If he can keep up this play the rest of the year, he should be a surprise lottery pick.”

Chriss, who is studying business at UW and turns 19 in July, declined to address his future. He said he’s focused on the Huskies, but admitted he’s flattered by the draft projections – especially considering he’s still a relative newbie in basketball.

“Everybody loves to be complimented so I’m not going to say I don’t,” he said. “I just try not to let it get to me and I don’t want to get big-headed because that’s not the type of person I am.”

Man on fire
In the past eight games, Washington freshman forward Marquese Chriss is averaging 17.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while shooting 60.1 percent from the field and 63.9 percent on free throws. Here’s a look.
Opponent Points Reb. Blocks
Colorado 17 6 5
Utah 15 6 3
at UCLA 12 4 0
at USC 18 6 1
Arizona State 19 3 1
Arizona 18 7 1
at Utah 24 5 1
at Colorado 18 10 6