CHICAGO — There was a point during the 2014-15 college basketball season when big man Robert Upshaw had emerged as one of the country's hottest NBA draft prospects. And then everything changed.
Just two years after being dismissed from Fresno State in 2013, it happened again. Upshaw was kicked off Washington's basketball team this past January. And for the last three months, he'd seemingly vanished.
Without a coach to contact or even a Twitter account to follow, Upshaw had completely fallen off the map.
But the NBA folks apparently weren't interested in just letting him fade away. They sent him an invite to this year's NBA combine in Chicago, where he finally resurfaced to meet with teams and look to rebrand his image.
"It's been a long process," Upshaw told Bleacher Report. "I've had a lot of education around drugs and alcohol. A lot of things I've been through—I haven't kept that a secret. I've just been working on myself with a team of people that are really close to me and building a structure so I can have success at the next level.
"I hit rock bottom and realized I'm 21 years old. I have a family to feed and food isn't going to put itself on the table. And so I have one more opportunity to accomplish my goals and take care of my family, so I'm going to sacrifice and do everything possible."
Upshaw hired a life coach following his departure from Washington. He's also been working out at P3 (Peak Performance Project) in Santa Barbara to improve his strength and conditioning.
Unfortunately, Upshaw declined to participate in five-on-fives in Chicago, but he did meet with several teams—including the Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers, Washington Wizards, Los Angels Lakers, Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers—who questioned his past behavioral issues.
"I haven't kept anyone out of the loop. They know a lot about me," Upshaw said, referring to the teams with which he spoke. "I just kept everything truthful, and I had a lot of great interviews.
"I'm very open with the problems that I had. They know parts and bits and pieces. But to tell my story for the first time in three years—it's been amazing."
Given the value tied to rim protection in today's NBA, it's no wonder why teams are willing to bring him in. Prior to leaving Washington, Upshaw was leading the country in shot-blocking, having swatted 4.5 shots a game (7.2 per 40 minutes) through 19 contests. Upshaw ultimately finished his college career with a bang—a 13-point, nine-rebound, six-block effort against Utah and projected 2016 lottery pick Jakob Poeltl on January 25.
"I consider myself to be the best defensive player in the country," said Upshaw. "There's no doubt about what I can do defensively."
Upshaw's measurements at the combine could have only enhanced the appeal tied to his defensive outlook. He came in at 7'0" in sneakers, while his wingspan (7'5½"), standing reach (9'5") and hand size (10" by 11") each ranked No. 1 in the class.
Upshaw also seemed confident regarding his offensive development, something we didn't see much of at Fresno State or Washington.
"I feel like I can add a lot of offense to a team...In college, I was a role player—I blocked shots, ran the floor, rebounded. But over past three months, I've been able to work on my game and tighten up a few things."
Upshaw mentioned Portland Trail Blazers' star LaMarcus Aldridge as a player he models his game after.
He also appears to have a strong support circle consisting of current and ex-NBA players. Upshaw said he speaks to Seattle-connected players like Spencer Hawes, Jamal Crawford, Tony Wroten and former All-Star Brandon Roy—veterans who talked to him about "how the game goes and how everything is at the next level."
However, as one NBA scout told me, "He's saying all the right things, but it still can't change the fact he got kicked out of two schools while being one of the best players."
Whoever chooses to add Upshaw will undoubtedly be rolling the dice, especially if it's in the first round, where contracts are guaranteed. And this is something Upshaw has apparently recognized.
"To be here is a blessing," he said. "After being through what I've been through the past three years, to still be here to this day—whether it's being drafted in the first [round], second or walking on to a team or having to struggle to get my way there. I'm going to fight and do whatever I have to to get to the next level."
Upshaw ultimately offers plenty of risk and major potential reward. We could be talking about a wasted investment, or a gamble that pays off big time.
Hopefully, he capitalizes on what's likely to be his final opportunity.
Consider Upshaw the biggest wild card of the 2015 NBA draft.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.