Los Angeles Lakers' Gamble on Robert Upshaw Is Poised to Pay off

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistJuly 20, 2015

Jul 10, 2015; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Robert Upshaw (12) reacts after a call during an NBA Summer League game against Minnesota at Thomas & Mack Center. Minnesota won the game 81-68.  Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

He’s a 7-foot shot-blocking intimidator who has left burned bridges in his wake, but Robert Upshaw is a gamble with a big upside for the Los Angeles Lakers.

One of the premier defenders in the college ranks, Upshaw slid right off the wrong end of the draft board in June. But Los Angeles invited him to Las Vegas Summer League, followed by a report from ESPN’s Baxter Holmes that the big man would soon be signing a two-year unguaranteed contract with the team.

Upshaw played limited minutes in Vegas, averaging just 1.4 points, 2.2 rebounds and 0.8 blocks per game. There were moments when he dominated opposing big men, but there were other instances in which he seemed obviously out of condition.

His journey to the NBA has been neither smooth nor consistent, and there have been far too many gaps and interruptions.

But when he’s right, this giant basketball prospect is a beast. 

On the eve of summer league, Upshaw was interviewed by Seattle Sports Radio 950. After being read a Bleacher Report excerpt describing him as a “giant pterodactyl,” the man with the 7’5” wingspan chuckled.

“I’ll take it,” Upshaw said. “It’s a compliment.”

But he also grew emotional when speaking about the trials and tribulations he’s been through.

“I just really had to do some soul-searching,” the 21-year-old said. “I really had to humble myself and learn new things, and learn how to mature and let life happen.”

Upshaw grew up in Fresno, California and was such a fierce school rim-protector at San Joaquin Memorial High that his coach, Pat Geil, actually had to remove him from practice.

“He was blocking so many shots and making it so difficult to score that our starting big guys began losing confidence,” Geil said, per Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports. “When they got in games, they were hesitant to shoot. Eventually, we had to tell Rob, 'Why don't you sit out for a while.'”

But in college, Upshaw repeatedly fell victim to his own mistakes. He was dismissed from Fresno State after his freshman season for repeated violations of school policy.

According to Eisenberg, Upshaw got back on track that summer by enrolling in former NBA star John Lucas’ treatment program in Houston.

The 260-pound center subsequently transferred to the University of Washington, where he redshirted for his sophomore year.

Upshaw returned to form with the Huskies, starting the following season with a 14-5 run and accumulating 85 blocks in the process. But all that progress came to a skidding halt when the nation’s leading rim-protector was discharged on January 26 for violating team rules.

After Upshaw’s banishment, Washington’s season went south with a 2-10 finish that ended their tournament hopes.

And suddenly, a player once discussed in lottery terms was looking at the potential end of his hoops dream.

But he took time off to regroup and was even invited into Bill Walton’s home. During his Seattle radio interview, Upshaw was asked about conquering his demons with the Hall of Famer’s help:

He’s great man, his advice to me when I first met him, about his injuries and his addictions… He kind of gave me experiences in life, when you’ll be in those situations and you’ll be doing those things. And we just traded information and I really learned from him and that’s why I’m having success now.

Upshaw spent the spring getting back into basketball shape at P3 (Peak Performance Project) in Santa Barbara, California. But he was dealt yet another blow at the NBA Draft Combine when he was red-flagged for a potential heart issue and held out of NBA team workouts.

He was eventually cleared and worked out with a few teams, including the Lakers. But by then, too much damage had accumulated, as evidenced by a complete draft-night misfire.

But according to Upshaw during his radio interview, he received a summer-league offer from L.A. that night, and with it, another chance at redemption. The frontcourt prospect played well in his first two appearances, matching up against Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Jahlil Okafor for the Philadelphia 76ers.

In the aftermath of those games, Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News wrote about the rookie center’s future prospects:

Despite playing in just 41 games over the last three years — and none since January — Upshaw has acquitted himself well with the Lakers. He is a defensive and rebounding natural with surprising touch around the basket. Assuming he stays clean off the court, it’s easy to imagine Upshaw making the team and earning a spot in the rotation behind starting center Roy Hibbert.

Upshaw also earned praise from Lakers summer league coach Mark Madsen, per Bonsignore: “When you think about a true 5 man who can get in the middle of the paint, who can block a shot and can rebound and who can get out there and change the complexion of the flow, Robert Upshaw can do that.”

And that’s a quality that’s sorely needed for a team ranked second-to-last in team defense this past season.

But the shot-blocker’s minutes and production decreased in Sin City after those first two games, culminating in a consolation match against the Utah Jazz in which he played six minutes, registering goose eggs across the stats line save for a lone rebound.

It would be easy to cast new doubts on a player who has stumbled so many times during an embryonic career. But it’s also worth pointing out the Lakers’ failures during summer league can’t be blamed on a reserve player who averaged only 11 minutes per game.

It is also possible that the Lakers didn’t want to overexpose him before he signed a contract, given the possibility of other teams poaching him away in free agency.

According to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak met with Upshaw on Thursday in order to further discuss the framework of a deal that had not yet been signed.

Or perhaps it was simply a matter of being out of condition.

“I’m nowhere near 100 percent,” Upshaw said, per Bonsignore. “But I’m getting in shape as we speak.”

But despite an uncertain and circuitous entry into the league, Upshaw has talent.

Jul 10, 2015; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Karl-Anthony Towns (32) shoots against the defense of Los Angeles Lakers center Robert Upshaw (12) during an NBA Summer League game at Thomas & Mack Center. Minnesota won the game 81-68. Man
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

On offense, he’s adept at setting screens early in the shot clock before diving back to the post. And at the other end, guards who have been the unfortunate recipients of an Upshaw shoulder shiver hesitate an extra beat before driving toward him at the rim.

He’s a work in progress, both in basketball and in life. And he’s well aware of the naysayers.

“I just feel like I’m at the point where I’ve got the biggest chip on my shoulder,” Upshaw said during his radio interview. “So I’m ready to play some real basketball and not this other stuff.”

The other stuff won’t fade away quickly, however—it will take a sustained effort and demonstrable success to move past Upshaw’s downfall narrative.

For the Lakers, the young center presents a modest gamble for a boxcar payoff. After Hibbert in the depth chart, the team has only utility center Robert Sacre and Tarik Black who’s more of a swing center/power forward.

But for Robert Upshaw, this is more than a question of positional convenience for the purple and gold.

It’s his last best chance for success.

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