As the second full day of free agency closes, the Los Angeles Lakers' failure to make any sort of headway in the market has become abundantly clear. The cream of the crop options have not been receptive to the Lakers' entreaties, the lack of alacrity in moving onto the secondary market has allowed several of those in the second and third tier to go elsewhere, and with a few exceptions, the remaining field looks fairly dismal. Barring a savior appearing out of the blue, the Lakers very well might go into next year with roster looking much as it does now: Kobe Bryant, a collection of promising young prospects, and precious little else.
This is especially the case at the five, where only Tarik Black and Robert Sacre are currently holding down the fort. With apologies to Black's emphatic dunking and Sacre's bench dancing, the Lakers need a center who can fill a greater variety of roles, namely: (1) a solid pick-and-roll partner for both D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, seeing as that's where they'll likely be operating most of the time; (2) a rim protector who can account for Julius Randle's mistakes as he figures out how to play defense in the league; and (3) a post scorer capable of slowing down the pace if necessary and capitalizing on mismatches when teams go small. Needless to say, players who fill all of those roles are among the best players in the league, making this appear like quite the unrealistic wishlist.
What if I were to tell you, however, that the Lakers possibly have a player capable of checking off all of those boxes already? Who is huge even among center prospects, as well as mobile enough to act as a fearsome rim protector and sufficiently strong to throw his weight around on offense. If you were reading this a few months ago, you would have inferred that the Lakers got the first overall pick and just managed to draft Karl-Anthony Towns, his ability to fill all of the aforementioned roles a large part of why he was drafted first. Yet the player we are referring to here wasn't taken in the lottery, the first round, or even drafted for that matter: it's Robert Upshaw, the troubled former Washington center who currently is on the Lakers' Summer League team.
It is a testament to the sheer depth of the personal issues that have plagued Upshaw throughout his career that despite his obvious talent and fit for a league that needs rim protection more than ever, he ultimately went undrafted last week. Although the exact scope of Upshaw's problems have never been fully documented, that he was kicked off two teams speaks for itself. To his credit, he has appeared contrite and willing to admit his previous wrongdoing in interviews with Draft Express and elsewhere, but teams were obviously sufficiently wary of Upshaw's problems and a heart issue that was located during the combine as to shun him on draft night.
As a result, even though the temptation is to say that the Lakers managed to obtain a talent that slipped between the cracks, the threat of Upshaw's issues resurfacing remains omnipresent. The risk to the Lakers, to be sure, is very small because as it stands, he only is on the Lakers' summer league team and any contract he signs with the parent squad in the event of a successful performance on his part is likely to be littered with non-guaranteed money and plenty of compliance clauses. But by the same token, it would be erroneous to claim that Upshaw can be counted upon as a fixture at center or even to number him among the panoply of promising young prospects the Lakers have such as Russell, Randle, or Clarkson. He simply hasn't proven to the Lakers or anyone in the league that he can be relied upon in such a fashion.
All this noted, what if Upshaw could confront his demons and clean up his act? What if his remorse during the pre-draft process was genuine and ultimately allowed him to step beyond the issues of his college years and become a productive player? Well, to put it plainly, his value to the Lakers' rebuild would be immeasurable. We hope that Russell is the star point guard that has eluded the Lakers since Magic Johnson's retirement or that Randle is the "playmaking four" Zach Lowe posits is increasingly necessary nowadays; but Upshaw is the potential glue that brings all of these pieces together and provides the foundation for a competitive team. He is a terror on the defensive side of the ball, blocking an absurd 17.4 percent of shots while he was on the floor at Washington, and he's a deft finisher who converted 75 percent of his attempts around the rim.
The difficulty of finding a center like this to anchor both your offense and defense cannot be overstated. Considering that each of the Lakers' top prospects right now in Russell, Clarkson, and Randle project to have issues on defense, the value Upshaw brings defensively can't be emphasized enough either. When the Lakers were slated to be drafting closer to the fifth overall selection, Willie Cauley-Stein and his defensive prowess were a valid consideration for the Lakers for this very reason; a veritable defensive center makes the rest of the roster-building process that much easier. Such a piece removes the need to find solid defenders at every other spot to compensate, and precludes a structural issue that might make it very difficult to construct a competent defense.
Even with this as Upshaw's best case scenario, it remains irresponsible to put the weight of such expectations on a player who hasn't proven he can handle it. The Lakers' free agent strike out, however, has made this gamble on Upshaw even more important, even necessary for the rebuild's viability. Indeed, without outside help to buttress the Lakers' core, essentially all of the Lakers' hopes are now invested in the success of their young prospects. Whether Upshaw will be able to join that group will be one of the more fascinating storylines surrounding the Lakers' in Las Vegas.
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