LAS VEGAS -- The Los Angeles Lakers came to Las Vegas to gamble on Robert Upshaw's potential, and so far they're just beating the house. Over three games in Vegas, Upshaw has demonstrated both the tantalizing length and shot-altering abilities that originally had him slotted into many mock drafts as a lottery pick; mixed in with reminders that he is still a raw player.
In twelve minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Upshaw mostly acquitted himself well. He looked noticeably tired at points as he works his way into NBA shape, but in his short stints Minnesota's guards were terrified to venture into the paint, where Robert blocked three shots in addition to the ones he simply affected or deterred altogether. The rookie also made his only shot from the field, a nice spinning jumper through the inflatable tube man arms of the Wolves' Karl-Anthony Towns for an and-1, and showed enough for the team to sign him to a two-year deal shortly after the final buzzer sounded.
Lakers Summer League head coach Mark Madsen followed up the front office's display of faith in Upshaw with a public demonstration of his own, nearly doubling the rookie's minutes in the Lakers' second game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Upshaw once again exhibited both the good (6 rebounds, 1 block) and the bad (missed all three of his shot attempts and both of his free throws) aspects of his game in his 23 minutes, .
More valuable of an indicator of Upshaw's progress towards becoming an NBA player was spending the majority of his time on the floor guarding the Sixers' Jahlil Okafor. At times Robert was able to use his length to disrupt the polished Okafor and was partially responsible for the Duke product missing 8 of his 14 shots. At other moments, Okafor was able to use the 12 lb. advantage in weight he holds over the taller Upshaw to bully his way into deep post position and draw some of his 12 free throws.
"Our back line was vocal, they were talking" Madsen said after his team's victory over Philadelphia. "When you think about a true five-man, who can get in the middle of the paint, who can block a shot, who can rebound, who can really get out there and change the complexion and the flow, Robert Upshaw can do that."
Arguably more important than anything he has done on the court in Las Vegas is that Upshaw has not shown any of the issues which led to his dismissal from two separate NCAA basketball programs. If one is looking for a story about a locker room cancer, they should head elsewhere. A noticeably upbeat Upshaw even jokingly invaded the postgame media scrum after the win over the Sixers, fooling around behind the Lakers' camera man challenging Tarik Black to keep a straight face during his press availability.
Robert also understands he has work to do if he wants to make it in the NBA. After the organization's very public vote of confidence in the young seven-footer over the weekend, he played just over six minutes in the Lakers' disappointing 76-66 loss to the New York Knicks on Monday night. Undeterred by the minimal playing time, Upshaw was the first Lakers player on the floor warming up after halftime and tried to bring some positive energy to a team that was struggling to find.
Upshaw is far from a finished product, and certainly will not be done developing by the end of the Lakers' time in Las Vegas. On the other hand, "he has the soft touch from the outside, he has the nice jump hook, and I think his game is continuing to expand and unfold" said Madsen. If Upshaw can continue to improve his consistency, conditioning, and understanding of the nuances of professional level defense, the Lakers could have themselves one of the steals in the draft. Again.