One of the most peculiar episodes of the offseason finally concluded Monday afternoon, when the Los Angeles Lakers signed rookie center Robert Upshaw to a two-year, partially-guaranteed contract, ending a prolonged tango over the enigmatic big man's status dating back to Summer League. Upshaw went undrafted this summer due to concerns over his health and personal issues relating to dismissals from two NCAA programs. However, Upshaw's immense potential on both the offensive and defensive ends make him a worthy camp invite and bring the team's total depth chart to 18 players.
Robert is an outstanding pick-and-roll center who showed an adept ability to set solid picks for D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson at Summer League. His work around the rim on offense was elite at the University of Washington, shooting 74.7 percent at the rim and ranking tenth among all players with 75+ FGAs.
That being said, the reasons Upshaw is truly worth the low-risk signing, earning only $35,000 guaranteed, are his elite defensive and rebounding potential. He's still a raw prospect ill-suited to succeed in the NBA immediately. However, his length and athleticism allowed him to become the NCAA's top shot blocker and lead an otherwise lowly Washington team to a solid record while he was on the roster.
Upshaw has outstanding size for an NBA center, measuring in at 7'0" tall, 275 pounds, and with a 7'5" wingspan. For those who have not seen him play, he is a proverbial mountain on the court, as Jahlil Okafor found out the hard way this summer:
Upshaw's most recent alma mater, the University of Washington, thrived with his defensive output on the court. The team's two-point percentage of shots made by the opponent skyrocketed from 38.5 percent with him on the floor to 49.7 percent with him off the floor. The Huskies gave up .07 points per possession more when Upshaw was off the court.
Where Robert truly excels, and what might have led him to a pick in the lottery range, is his ability to protect the rim. He clocked in with 6.8 blocks per 40 min pace adjusted and a 17.4 percent block rate during his stint at Washington. He was the leading shot blocker in the NCAA last season by far. Finally, Upshaw's defensive rebounding potential is also a keen attribute of his game. He consumed 19.8 rebounds per 100 possessions and grabbed a total of 24.9 percent of all rebounds available while he was on the floor. His 13.4 rebounds per 40 pace adjusted ranked fifth highest amongst Draft Express' top 100 prospects.
Upshaw's body of work at Washington was essential to their success. He was the critical defensive piece of a decent Washington team that went 14-5 with him on the roster and plummeted to 2-9 once he was forced off the team due to personal misconduct. His defensive upside is immense and clear. If the Lakers' gambit pays off he could prove to be the type of presence in the paint that Hassan Whiteside has become for the Miami Heat.
Still, Upshaw's skillset remains very raw and contains some critical issues. His excellent physical profile and athleticism allowed him to cover up a lack of proper fundamentals. He was often found out of position in pick-and-roll coverage or allowed deep position to his man in the post. Upshaw's gamble, a correct one many times in the college game, was that his size and mobility would alleviate his improper positioning. That formula will not pay dividends in the NBA, where the speed and strength of the opposition will mitigate many of his natural gifts.
In addition, he also struggled mightily with bigs who were able to face up. His footwork was consistently askew and placed him on the back foot reacting tardily to the attacking player's decisions. This could end up being a serious hole in his defensive capacity, as the league trends towards small ball centers that do not just post and plod along the court. Upshaw is a mobile defender but will need to learn how to seal an attacking big with his feet in order for his size to be fully utilized on defense. However, what he most severely lacks at this point and time is conditioning. He looked slow and out of breath many times at Summer League, but that is to be expected from a player who had not seen a competitive game for months after his dismissal from Washington.
If Upshaw were to make the team he would need to spend an inordinate amount of time in the D-League. Quite simply, he needs minutes and practice to add the sort of polish to his game that will be needed to shine at the next level. However, the potential is there for Robert to truly become an elite defensive talent in the NBA. His capacity to produce is evidenced by his physical tools, rebounding ability, and best-in-class block rate. When he was on the floor Washington had an offensive rating of 110.6 and a defensive rating of 91.4. Upshaw can without a doubt move the needle for a team when properly motivated and in shape.
At this point he has simply earned the right to a camp invite, but hopefully he is able to take advantage of the opportunity. His upside is much higher than either of the Lakers' backup centers, Tarik Black and Robert Sacre. Assuming Upshaw is able to have a successful camp, the team really could make room for him on the roster by cutting Robert Sacre. The more substantive roadblock to Upshaw's potential inclusion in the roster is the looming presence of Metta World Peace.
Upshaw is a project for sure, but his partially-guaranteed contract has a marginal effect on the team's cap space. He's an investment with a higher upside than Robert Sacre, who outside of some electric bench dances, has never even been a replacement level player.
Upshaw is by no means an immediate panacea to the Lakers' issues on defense. However, the potential to develop into a dominant defensive player is real. If he can hone better fundamental positioning and footwork, he will be able to leverage his enormous physical talent. Now that the Lakers front office has formally rolled the dice on him, it's all up to Robert from here on out.