Rim protection in the NBA is invaluable. Every team that hopes to contend for a title needs to have a big man patrolling the paint that can erase mistakes from perimeter defenders. The Golden State Warriors have Andrew Bogut, the Los Angeles Clippers have DeAndre Jordan, the Cleveland Cavaliers have Timofey Mozgov, the Houston Rockets have Dwight Howard, the Thunder have Serge Ibaka, and the trend is clear.
The Los Angeles Lakers, after struggling for a few years to find a paint-protecting giant, were able to snag Roy Hibbert from the Indiana Pacers. The Hibbert acquisition was a great first step, but an NBA roster can never have enough depth that can provide the same defensive presence. With the Lakers' other centers being Tarik Black and Robert Sacre -- two players without a nose for protecting the rim -- the team certainly could have used another imposing paint presence.
Enter Robert Upshaw.
With a 7'5.5 wingspan, adequate mobility for his size, and a ridiculous block percentage of 17.4 in his final year of college, Upshaw seemed to have all the potential in the world to become a defensive anchor in the NBA. It's the reason why many had him projected as a first-round pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. However, serious character concerns and a medical issue resulted in Upshaw falling off draft boards and ultimately going undrafted.
Nonetheless, the Lakers, eyeing an opportunity to pick up a player of Upshaw's potential at essentially no cost, decided to give the former Washington Husky a shot. They added him to their Summer League roster and gave the big man a chance to prove himself, both on and off the court. Heading into Summer League, Upshaw was already playing from behind. He hadn't played in a real game since January and clearly wasn't in the greatest shape. Despite those physical limitations, he immediately made an impact with his new opportunity, going up against Karl-Anthony Towns. Upshaw blocked three shots and even hit a turnaround jumper over the first overall pick in just 12 minutes. He looked like an extraordinary prospect.
His performance, along with his undeniable physical tools, led the Lakers to extend him a training camp invite, though he still had major obstacles to clear. Obviously the first one was to stay out of trouble, and the second was to get into shape. He went to counseling to work on his personal issues, and got into basketball shape by losing 25 pounds. Upshaw was ready to fight for a roster spot in Hawaii.
There were some flashes of brilliance in the preseason -- blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, and displaying some offensive skill here and there -- but as a whole he didn't play well. As raw of a player as he is, it wasn't a surprising outcome as he went up against actual NBA players. It's clear he has a ways to go before he's a finished product, but it's not about the player he is now, but rather the player he can become down the road. Perhaps he could develop similar to how Hassan Whiteside did, though that would obviously be the best-case scenario, and is more of an exception than something you can project.
Regardless of that possibility, the Lakers decided to release Upshaw in their first wave of roster cuts, opting to keep Robert Sacre instead. Byron Scott said the Lakers preferred the experienced player over the upside that Upshaw offers, and because there was a "big-time learning curve on both ends." Basketball-wise, it's hard to agree with that rationale. The Lakers are not in a position to compete right now. They're likely to miss the playoffs, and to be honest, would be lucky to win 40 games.The Lakers are, however, in a position to develop young talent and should be doing anything they can to find diamonds in the rough.
One advantage of being a rebuilding team like the Lakers are is that you can afford the hiccups that an undeveloped player like Upshaw has on the court in the short-term. Given time, he could be a formidable rotation player in two-to-three years when the team's young core of D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson is further along in its development. As such, retaining an end-of-the-bench big like Sacre over a player that actually has the tools to become a productive NBA player seems backwards. Obviously there's no guarantee that Upshaw pans out, but the Lakers are doing themselves a disservice by not at least testing the waters.
It's not as simple as prospect potential, though, and in Upshaw's case this isn't just a basketball decision. He comes with some serious baggage that brought him to the Lakers in the first place. He was kicked off of two college teams and Eric Pincus of the LA Times mentioned that some executives have said they would "pay not to have Upshaw around their locker room." NBA teams know much, much more about Upshaw's past than the public and even media does, so his history may be even more alarming than we're aware of. As it stands now, the Lakers are trying to re-establish a winning culture and create continuity for their young core. A healthy locker room is important for that, and it would be hard to fault the team for being uncomfortable with having him around, especially while Sacre, Upshaw's counterpart, is known to be a great teammate and positive locker room influence. Bringing this rationale into the decision to keep Sacre over Upshaw makes it more understandable.
Still, it's disappointing that Upshaw was cut. Despite his troubled past, I felt he was worth keeping around. Aside from his potential on the court, he, by all accounts, has begun taking the right steps to turn his life around and showed his dedication to becoming an NBA player when he worked into playing shape. Thankfully, there's still a chance that his time with the Lakers isn't over just yet. The team is reportedly hoping that he'll clear waivers and sign with the D-Fenders. If that all goes as planned, perhaps he can continue to develop his basketball skills in the D-League, while continuing to make strides in his personal life. The issue now is another team is free to sign him, and no matter how much personal and professional development he needs in the present, it'd be disheartening to watch him grow into a defensive monster on another team in the future.