Why Robert Upshaw Can Be Steal of the 2015 NBA Draft for Los Angeles Lakers

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistJune 29, 2015

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Robert Upshaw is a 7-foot, shot-blocking savant.

Dare to encroach upon his paint, and he will crush you. Try seeking refuge in jump shots, and he will rush out with his 7'5" wingspan and consume the ball on its upward trajectory like a giant pterodactyl.

But despite all of that, the former Washington Huskies center went undrafted Thursday night at Barclays Center. 

That could work to the advantage of the Los Angeles Lakers, a team without a quality center currently under contract. Per Sean Deveney of Sporting News, the L.A. front office has officially passed on picking up Jordan Hill’s $9 million option for next season. The team also has until June 30 to exercise the $981,358 option on Robert Sacre—a 7-foot palooka with limited rebounding and shot-blocking skills.

Heading into summer free agency, management will attempt to lure one of the top available big men. But there will also be a chance to catch Upshaw’s shot-swatting act at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. The man with all of the red flags and eye-popping potential will be a member of the purple and gold squad, according to Real GM's Shams Charania.

Could an undrafted rookie actually be the steal of the 2015 class? The 21-year-old averaged 10.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.5 blocks over 19 games with the Huskies this season.

Yet, there is a reason no one chose Upshaw and his prodigious talents in the draft. It starts with getting booted from not one, but two college programs. The first was Fresno State, which dismissed the freshman prospect on August 14, 2013, for repeated violations of athletic department policy.

Upshaw got back on track by spending part of that summer at John Lucas' treatment program in Houston before enrolling at Washington, where he redshirted for his sophomore year.

With the 258-pound center in the lineup, Washington went 14-5 during the 2014-15 season. Upshaw accumulated 85 blocks and was the nation's leading rim-protector. On Nov. 27, Upshaw had eight blocks in 19 minutes off the bench in a win against San Jose State.

Per Percy Allen of the Seattle Times, Upshaw was originally credited with seven swats in that game. But after reviewing video, "school officials awarded him with another block that pushed his total to eight and gave him the new school record."

On January 26, Upshaw was discharged for violating team rules. After he left the program, the Huskies imploded with a 2-10 death spiral to close out the season.

During an interview with Draft Express at P3 (Peak Performance Project) in Santa Barbara, California, Upshaw addressed past errors in judgement.

"At the end of the day, I've made my mistakes, and I've learned from them, and I still have the opportunity to do what I love and do what I dream. So it's all about me getting better from here, and that's all that matters," he said.

Upshaw also received support from legendary basketball giant Bill Walton, a man who has some experience with basketball demons. As SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell wrote in May, the draft hopeful was grateful for being invited into Walton's home.

"We just talked about everything he went through," Upshaw said. "The struggle. Basketball for him, his injuries...It's been a great experience. It's really been humbling to see somebody who has established himself to have me at his house and talk to me, it's great."

But Upshaw faced another obstacle at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. He was flagged for a potential heart issue and held out of further training and NBA team workouts, per Jonathan Givony of Draft Express. Upshaw's agent, Bill Duffy, said at the time, "Based on the outcome of previous evaluations, we expect his full clearance."

Upshaw was subsequently cleared for team workouts, including one held by the Los Angeles Lakers.

But perhaps the weight of so many issuesof chances and second chances and too many warning bellswas simply too much. The night of June 25 arrived, and the troubled center's name wasn't called.

Meanwhile, the Lakers surprised a lot of people when they chose Ohio point guard D'Angelo Russell with their No. 2 pick rather than Duke center Jahlil Okafor. L.A. had two more picks after that, selecting Wyoming power forward Larry Nance Jr. at No. 27 and Stanford wing Anthony Brown at No. 34.

The Lakers will look to throw max-type money at an elite front court player in the coming weeks. But that particular talent pool is finite and in high demand. And while an undrafted rookie won’t be the ultimate solution, it certainly won’t hurt to eyeball Upshaw during summer league—especially given his proclivity for altering shot attempts.

The following stats for rookie big men are based on each player per 40 minutes of play during the 2014-15 season:

Comparative stats per-40 minutes
Player, draft orderFG%REBBLKPTS
Karl-Anthony Towns, No. 1.56612.74.319.5
Jahlil Okafor, No. 3.66411.31.923.0
Willie Cauley-Stein, No. 6.5729.92.613.8
Frank Kaminsky, No. 9.5479.81.722.3
Robert Upshaw, undrafted.59313.17.217.6
Sports-Reference

With all the question marks, nobody would have reasonably expected Upshaw to be in the same conversation as the above lottery picks. Yet Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com cited an interesting what-if scenario from an unnamed NBA executive.

"On talent alone, if he would have stayed throughout the year, he could have crept all the way up to the middle of the first round, maybe late lottery. He was having a great year," the executive said.

Upshaw is huge, with a 9'5" standing reach. He's also surprisingly mobile, running the floor decently and finishing strong at the rim. His overall offensive game is a work in progress, but he has good interior scoring instincts with solid turnaround baby hooks as well as authoritative dunks. That said, his 43 percent conversion rate from the charity stripe is woefully lacking.

But it's on the defensive end where Upshaw could have the most impact. He's quick off his feet and has the innate sense of timing that all great rebounders and rim-protectors possess. He can man the middle, adjust in the pick-and-roll and he has the quickness to get out on shooters all the way to three-point territory.

The NBA can be a boom-or-bust business, and nowhere is the disparity in success stories more evident than the draft. This is where the few get separated from the many and where those on the fringe find themselves chasing their dreams in ever-widening circles—the minor leagues, global basketball and, all too often, nothing at all.

But while Upshaw is the epitome of a cautionary tale, he also has certain qualities that beg another chance.

He combines a massive frame with agility and the rare instinct to instantly track an incoming bogey, as if by radar, before sending it off into the sea of lights.

Upshaw could be the draft prospect who got away before ultimately landing in the Lakers' lap.

Stats courtesy of ESPN and Sports-Reference, unless otherwise noted. 

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