At a listed 7 feet tall, 258 pounds as of the 2015 NBA Draft combine, Robert Upshaw is a big man, but the potential he holds as an NBA prospect is even bigger. Upshaw's story is familiar by now: despite being dismissed from two college basketball programs under hazy circumstances, he was still considered by many to be at the bare minimum a lock to be taken in the first round of the draft. But then NBA doctors flagged a heart issue discovered during physicals, and while Upshaw was later cleared to return to workouts, this combination of factors was enough to cause him to fall out of the draft entirely.
In the aftermath of the draft, the Los Angeles Lakers swooped in and landed a commitment from Upshaw to play for their Summer League team in Las Vegas. Upshaw's time in Vegas was up and down. On one hand, Upshaw held his own with much more highly-touted rookies in Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor at some points, leading Summer League head coach Mark Madsen to rave, "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."
But summer league was not all positives, as Upshaw's struggles with his conditioning led to him averaging seven minutes per game over the Lakers' final three Las Vegas contests after averaging 17.5 over the first two. Contrary to some reports at the time, Upshaw went unsigned after Summer League, continuing to work out with the Lakers until he and the team agreed to terms on a non-guaranteed, multi-year deal a few weeks ago.
Despite all of the question marks surrounding Upshaw, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sounded cautiously optimistic about the big man when he spoke to the media during his preseason availability on Thursday. "[Upshaw is] a very talented kid ... He's got great size, he's got God given gifts." Talent is great, but NBA history is littered with tales of prodigiously talented players who flamed out because of off the court issues. Kupchak understands that reality.
"It's no secret that he's bounced from two schools and he's been dismissed from both programs," said Kupchak, "We feel comfortable after looking in to, and talking to, various people associated with both programs, we feel we know what the issues are. You look around the league and there are always players who don't always start out on the best of terms, but after a year or two or three end up being pretty formidable players in this league."
One such player? The recently signed Metta World Peace, who as Ron Artest was drafted 16th-overall (slightly before the range in which Upshaw was originally projected to be selected). Over the first three years of his career, World Peace averaged 12.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 2 steals in 30.8 minutes per game, averages that Upshaw holds an almost less than zero chance of touching his rookie year. Metta''s early career is filled with off the court issues, from his admission to drinking during halftime of some games to most infamously his "Malice at the Palace" brawl. World Peace later turned his career around and became a vital contributor to the Lakers' 2010 championship team, and while he has drawn most of his praise for his work with Julius Randle, he is an almost perfect mentor for Upshaw, a real life example of overcoming off the court adversity right in the same locker room who can teach Upshaw the type of habits and professionalism it will take for him to earn a spot on the Lakers' roster.
Upshaw seems to have a head start on some of those habits, reportedly dropping twenty pounds as part of his ongoing efforts to make the team. "In Summer League I didn't feel like myself, and I just didn't feel as fluid as I usually feel," Upshaw told Joey Ramirez of Lakers.com, "When I got back to San Diego where I was training, I put an emphasis on being faster, quicker and slimmer."
Those are the types of attributes, along with his much vaunted rim protection, that the Lakers' front office will be looking for Upshaw to display when training camp begins Monday in Hawaii. He will have a real shot to make the team, with Kupchak telling reporters Thursday that he was open to cutting players with guaranteed contracts if it was necessary to put together the best possible roster.
"We've gotten to know him in the last three months. Very young, but we feel he's worth the gamble, he's on a multi-year deal, and it clearly comes down to what he can show us in training camp. It's all up to him," said Kupchak, "but he's young, and he does have gifts that a lot of players don't have. Whether or not he can develop them, and we can help him develop them, that remains to be seen."
Everything is coalescing to give the formerly undrafted rookie a genuine chance to stick on the Lakers' final 15-man roster, the first step to resuscitating his NBA career after a fall in draft stock reminiscent of the tale of Icarus. Upshaw said a month ago "I know that I'll be a Laker". If that is his goal, the journey begins Monday in Hawaii, but as Kupchak alluded to, the destination is up to Upshaw.