ONTARIO -- The Los Angeles Lakers couldn't notch their first victory in their return to California, but it's all about taking baby steps through the long process that lies ahead. That might be the best way to describe Robert Upshaw's current place in his journey to the NBA, finally getting his feet onto the hardwood for the first time this preseason.
It only took a few seconds for him to rock the rim with a welcoming dunk. Moments later, he drained the same baseline turnaround jumper he proved capable of hitting during Summer League. Scoring isn't what Upshaw wants to define him as a player though, and he was clear about his focus on defense following his first game in a Lakers jersey.
"I feel like my job out there is to anchor the defense. Let the guards know the screen is coming and talk to them. Block shots. Rotate. Do everything I need to do defensively to help this team win," Upshaw said following his debut. Does that mean he wants to do his best to replicate what Roy Hibbert brings to the team? '
Upshaw is a unique talent that fell into the Lakers' lap, and if he can complete his basketball rebirth, locking him up with a Summer League invite within hours of the final pick of the 2015 NBA Draft finalizing might be the front office's savviest move yet. That a player with such tangible and clear basketball gifts could go undrafted, even with the question marks surrounding him off the court, seems unbelievable while watching him play. He showed flashes of why many projected him as a first-round prospect during his first test run in Las Vegas, despite being 20 pounds heavier at the time, and the progress he's made since then was evident in his first preseason game. It's a great sign for the Lakers that a player with a reach that seemingly scrapes the stars is still primarily focused on keeping his mind grounded away from it.
"I feel like I've improved a lot over training camp. I've improved a lot over Summer League. I keep showing spurts of my ability to play at this level. I'm still learning, and I've still got a long way to go, but I feel like I've been doing a good job," Upshaw said of his development since June. "I've been doing everything I need to do. I've been keeping my nose to the ground, and I feel like it's been working. I just need to clean a few things up."
Upshaw isn't a guarantee to make the Lakers' 15-man roster no matter how much he's improved individually over the summer, which is the elephant in the Lakers' locker room for several players. Hibbert is the clear starting center, with Tarik Black and Robert Sacre both standing as players the franchise could be comfortable with rounding out their big man depth. At least one of these three centers will likely end up being cut, even if Byron Scott joked with media following the game that the Lakers "could" take four centers into the season if they were all playing "really well."
The Lakers have done their part to make Robert wait his turn and prove himself every step of the way, which is an important detail on the success they've found since partnering in June. This methodical approach is a strong reminder of how small the margin of error is for him to lose the opportunity of a lifetime. Upshaw was a late training camp roster signee despite word leaking the Lakers had a contract agreement in place with him following his first exhibition game. He was also one of the last players to break the minutes seal during preseason. To his credit, he's shifted his energy to supporting his teammates on the bench, remaining patient even while the precious few moments he has to prove himself tick away. The hard work he put in hasn't gone unnoticed.
"He's in much better condition right now. He's much lighter, getting up and down the floor much better, and he's getting off his feet much better," Scott said of the progress Robert's shown since Summer League. "We're getting a chance to see some of the things we keep hearing about. "
But with a young player's ups come the inevitable downs, and there's still significant work to be had for Upshaw to become the kind of player that can anchor a defense. "I thought that he made a ton of mistakes on both ends of the floor, but it's probably to be expected with his first game, because Jonathan [Holmes] was the same way," Scott said of Upshaw's preseason debut.
These kinds of growing pains are expected. Upshaw will have to show steady improvements to stay in the race for one of the final slots with such a competitive training camp roster. Robert was pleased with finally getting a chance to play, but he knows he has to do better next time. He showed great maturity holding himself accountable for his missteps. "There were a few miscommunications, and that was on my part. That's something I take full responsibility of. I'm going to go back tomorrow, look at the film, see what I did wrong, and make those improvements."
"It's about being in the right place at the right time," Upshaw said of what kind of things he looks for when going through game tape. "Coaches have been on me a lot, and Coach Scott I feel like has had patience with me about being in the right spot. I'm so used to a certain defense, like what I was doing at Washington to block shots. Now the court's bigger, the spacing's different, and the players are more athletic. It's not as easy as I did it in college. It's a challenge."
Beneath the excitement and potential, behind the box scores and quotes, is hard work and progress being made by a young man trying to find his way back onto the road. If it really is about being in the right place at the right time, Upshaw finding his way to the Lakers might be his best rotation yet.