El Segundo -- It's one hour before the Los Angeles D-Fenders are scheduled to take the floor when the hulking enigma known as Robert Upshaw ducks through the door to the gym. He begins work with an assistant coach who, like most human beings on the planet, looks like a child in comparison. The surprisingly lithe seven-footer catches the ball on the left block and pivots into a hook shot, sinking it. He then transitions into a variety of shot types, slowly moving away from the basket to showcase a much more fluid than advertised jumper.
Upshaw's teammates soon join him out on the floor to warm up in the strangely chilly gym where the Los Angeles Lakers practice and the D-Fenders play their games, but from being the first one out on the floor to his losing 50 pounds since before Las Vegas Summer League, the message is clear: Upshaw is not satisfied with toiling away in the D-League, and wants to make it to the big show.
But which player will the Lakers or another NBA team be getting if they call him up? The one that was kicked out of two colleges for unspecified violations of team rules, whose issues were so worrying to NBA front offices that he fell out of the draft entirely after being projected as a first-round pick, or the gentle giant who describes himself as someone who loves kids, showing it by spending time before and after D-Fenders games meeting and posing for pictures with them? The player who D-Fenders staffers describe as a pleasure to work with, who takes everything they can throw at him and asks for more?
"I choose how I want it to go," says Upshaw, describing what Lakers forward Metta World Peace told him his two career paths were. "I could be him and beat up a fan, or I could be Kevin Durant, I could be a greater person."
Only World Peace could so aptly describe the boom-or-bust potential that leaves fans salivating over Upshaw's raw tools but NBA front offices wary of his presence in their locker room.
Upshaw will almost certainly never be as good as Durant (or even play a comparable style), but he is a seven-foot mound of clay that appears ready to be molded into an NBA-level offensive threat. While he is shooting just 43.9 percent from the field, D-Fenders head coach Casey Owens believes Upshaw can shoot a significantly higher percentage if he sticks to the right type of shots.
"He has to commit to diving hard [out of pick-and-rolls] every single time because those are easy baskets. We turn that corner and we can throw it up to a seven-footer, and that's a 1,000 percent field goal percentage, you know what I mean?" asks Owens. "He's got to learn to dive hard every single time instead of sometimes."
It's not quite 1000 percent from the field, but Upshaw is shooting 58.3 percent on shots in the restricted area this season. It's also easy to see why Owens wants to put him in pick-and-rolls, and much of his value to an NBA team would probably be derived from those sets. A mammoth human being like Upshaw can set solid screens, and when he "dives hard," just like his head coach wants, good things can happen, like in this play against the Blue:
Upshaw's screen swallowed up Blue guard Dez Wells, which helped free up point guard Josh Magette. This forced help from Mike Cobbins, the man supposed to be responsible for Upshaw. The rookie's soft hands have made him a beloved lob target for D-Fenders' guards all season, and here he was able to use them to catch and finish despite have to reach behind himself to collect Magette's pass.
Despite this burgeoning effectiveness out of pick-and-rolls, Upshaw has still taken 61 jump shots (his most of any shot type), while making just 29.5 percent of them.
It's hard to see why that's the case, at least from a technical perspective. His shot looks fundamentally sound, and Upshaw actually made three of the six right wing three-pointers he took in warm-ups before playing against the Blue, with even the misses looking relatively on target. For whatever reason, though, he is not seeing results when the actual games starts. The 22-year old rookie remains confident his shot will come around.
"I feel like I have enough talent," says Upshaw. "I've been working really hard on my jumper to just put my game all together, because if I can be in there in the fourth quarter and make a jump shot... I'll be more of a problem for teams."
However, he also knows his strengths lie closer to the basket.
"Mainly in the post," answers Upshaw when questioned on where he feels he can score best. "I've been a five all my life, and I've scored the ball in the basket left and right hand, over my left or right shoulder all my life so that's what I've been working on."
The work on those types of shots has paid off, as Upshaw has made eight of the 15 hook shots he's attempted this year, while Owens estimates he puts up hundreds a day as he works on his game. The D-Fenders also recently acquired Michael Holyfield, who weighs in at a listed 270 pounds and stands 6'11". The two titans will battle in practice, something team officials believe will aid in Upshaw's development throughout the year.
Upshaw also has to work on his sense of floor awareness. While he has dramatically improved on learning when to break off post-up attempts to allow driving lanes for D-League All-Star Vander Blue, sometimes he seems to catch the ball and go into one of his moves without a great sense of where he is on the floor, which contributes to his low field-goal percentage. Although ironing out those kinks is important, Upshaw and those around the D-Fenders understand it's the other side of the floor that holds greater potential upside for him.
"He's unbelievably talented," says Lakers forward Ryan Kelly, a teammate of Upshaw's during his multiple D-Fenders assignments as well as the Lakers' training camp and preseason. "He's long; he's bouncy ... as a shot blocker and defender right now he can play at a very high level, and he's got so much room to grow."
"He just gives us something that we don't have," says Owens. "He actually just ends up changing [our defense] for us by his presence. He protects the basket as well as anyone I've ever coached."
D-Fenders opponents are shooting 45.5 percent when Upshaw is on the floor, a number that rises to 47.3 when he sits. The 59.2 percent opponents shoot in the restricted area when Upshaw is on the court doesn't sound great, but it is the eighth best mark for any seven-footer in the D-League.
That's not to say that Upshaw doesn't still have a lot of room to improve, which the D-Fenders are aware of.
"Having to change sides of the floor defensively and be in different pick-and-roll coverages that you're not normally used to in college, I think it's a learning process so he doesn't pick up silly fouls," says Owens. "Because if he just plays with his verticality he's pretty effective, but if he leaves his feet and tries to block jump shots that's when guards are getting into him and they're putting early [fouls] on him."
Upshaw, who is averaging 3 fouls in 16.2 minutes per game, agrees with Owens' assessment of his issues.
"I think some of the fouls I have are silly fouls, and I need to get better with those, I need to watch film, and reevaluate what I'm doing out there on the court," says Upshaw. "I want to be in the game for my team at the end of the game, so I've got to limit as many fouls as possible."
One easy fix for Upshaw will be eliminating fouls that he has been prone to picking up in transition in a neverending jostle for position with smaller but more experienced players looking to throw him off of his game. Upshaw is following the advice of the coaching staff and has also been been working on keeping his long arms straight up to affect shots, rather than swiping for blocks.
This is a strategy he used to great affect against Oklahoma City, helping hold the Blue to 39.7 percent shooting while only picking up one foul in the first three quarters (he picked up three fouls in the final period when his focus slipped due to the D-Fenders holding a 30 point lead, but one of them was intentional so his coaches could sub him out).
"With all due respect to Oklahoma City, they're not a good finishing team," Upshaw confidently explained after the game (the Blue rank last in the league with a field goal percentage of 43.9) . "So, I know that I don't have to overdo it or try to go get a shot with them because their percentage is not high enough."
Another huge part of defense is communication, an area the D-Fenders' youngest player is already confident in, directing his veteran teammates in defensive coverages with aplomb throughout games, telling them to "blue" pick-and-rolls or letting them know he's coming to help. As the Lakers have found out this season, this is not a common area of strength for young players.
"Definitely, definitely make a big difference. I think I definitely make a big difference because when I'm in the game you don't see as much penetration to the middle," says Upshaw. "[I communicate] to let them know that I got their back and I got the help. Being a defensive stopper is what is going to win us games. You know, offense sells tickets, defense wins games."
Defense and winning games are two great struggles for this year's version of the Lakers, who rank last and second to last in the league in those categories, respectively. Upshaw wants to be a part of the turnaround, and still believes he can make the team this season. No matter how unlikely that may seem, no matter how many setbacks he's suffered, Upshaw is unwilling to give up on his dream.
Upshaw has been a victim of bad luck, most recently in the form of a viral illness leaving him unable to eat, much less play basketball, striking right before the D-League showcase. In Santa Cruz, he would have had an opportunity to show what he could do in front of NBA scouts from every team, but instead was forced to stay home and rest. Upshaw has also been a victim of his own choices, getting kicked out of two schools.
"I've been forced out most of my college career. I had to leave Fresno State, I had to leave Washington because of my actions, I'm not a quitter," declares Upshaw. "So being here I kind of went through some struggles early on when D-League started, but I stuck with it and I'm making it the goal to be on this Lakers team. It's the greatest team in basketball history with 16 championships."
Despite his struggles, he's become a cult favorite of Lakers fans on social media, something both Upshaw and the team are aware of. Fans of the talent-starved purple and gold bombard the D-Fenders' Twitter account to ask for updates on his progress, with many hoping he is the latest diamond in the rough for a Lakers front office that has shown a knack for mining talent well outside of the lottery.
"I think [fan's follow my progress] because people really see who I am as a person, they really see my talents and my abilities, and they look at what I've done and it's all been self-destructive," admits Upshaw. "It's not been to hurt anybody, it's not been to do anything wrong. I hurt myself.
"And people see that as like 'okay this guy's a great guy, he's out here with the kids [before and after games].' I love people, I love children. I love coming out here, and the 10 people that will come to our game, I love to see them here. They didn't have to be here. They don't have to come and watch a D-League basketball game. I just feel like I love everybody, and everybody loves me back."
Those words may seem surprising from a player teams saw as a locker room risk heading into the draft, but Owens and others around the D-Fenders think the team's atmosphere of collaboration in trying to get players called up to the NBA has benefited Upshaw.
"He was in two schools, and multiple high schools and AAU programs, so I don't know if he's ever had a real consistent voice that's demanded accountability from him," says Owens. "And I think there was resistance to that at first, not in a bad or disrespectful way, I just think it was something he had to get used to. You know that, 'hey, I am going to hold you accountable.'"
"But he's been really responsive to coaching, he wants to get better and that helps. He's not a guy that's just out here thinking he's going to get called up any second, he knows he needs to work. And that goes into being on time, taking care of your body, eating right, getting extra work in, being in the weight room, getting proper sleep, and this is all stuff that he's never had to do before. So it's a lot for a young guy, but if your body is truly your vehicle or your money maker, these are things that you have to commit to in order to have a meaningful career."
"I've never worked this hard in my life," confirms Upshaw. "I've lost a total of 50 pounds since the summer ended ... I've been working hard every day, getting extra workouts in, getting weight lifting in, which [are things] that I ran from in college. I've never worked this hard in my life to be a part of something so great, so I really just want to be a part of this greatness. Regardless of the 10-win, 11-win season that they're having, it's still greatness. It's still, when you step out on the court you have a lot of great guys, and a lot of high caliber guys out there playing so I want to be a part of that."
Upshaw says he has maintained friendships with current Lakers forwards Larry Nance, Jr. and Anthony Brown since playing against them in college and then with them in training camp, and credits World Peace as a mentor.
"Metta was a big-time mentor for me because of what Metta went through, and he kind of related it to what I went through, and kind of talked to me about a lot of the things that are going to go on from the start of my career in the NBA to the end of my career in the NBA," remembers Upshaw. "He really talked to me a lot about keeping poise, and not quitting and not giving up. He was probably one of the big influences for me."
Another large influence on Upshaw's developing work ethic was spending time during the Lakers' Hawaiian training camp with Kobe Bryant.
"My first day, I wanted to be the first guy in the gym ... But I was actually outside the hotel and Kobe, you know, the champ, had walked out, and I was like 'Yo champ, can I ride with you?' And he was like 'yeah, get in the car.' So we're just sitting in the car man and he's just talking to me, asking me questions," recalls Upshaw, sounding as excited as one would expect a kid who grew up in California to sound when describing the experience of hanging out with Bryant. "And it's just like, to be in the same car as this man, for him to be able to know my name and talk to me and ask me who I am is really great."
Upshaw kept his gear from that training camp and occasionally wears it to the practice facility the D-Fenders and Lakers share. The Lakers t-shirt given to him before his dramatic weight loss billows behind him like a plastic bag in the wind as Upshaw goes through post drills. Above him, the Lakers' championship trophies sitting in Mitch Kupchak's office window serve not only as a reminder of the team's greatness, but motivation.
"I want to be a part of that," says Upshaw. "I want to be a part of the championship winning teams and games, so I feel like I have to do what I have to do to stay here and work through everything to be a part of this team."
Upshaw still has a long way to go before he is capable of helping the team add to Kupchak's window dressings, but at just 22 years old in his first year of playing professional basketball, he still has time.
"It's his rookie year," says Lakers and D-Fenders big man Tarik Black, preaching patience. "LeBron [James] wasn't King James his first year. It took him years to develop into that. So every basketball player coming through this league needs to develop those habits that they want ... He has a bright future in the game of basketball, honestly. He's very talented."
The undrafted D-Leaguer whose impressive physical tools led two separate teammates to mention him in the same breath as Kevin Durant and LeBron James is certainly developing good habits in his time in the development league, but only time will tell if his hours of laboring away will lead to him getting some new Lakers gear that fits.
Special thanks to Scott Chasen of the Kansan for interviewing Ryan Kelly and Tarik Black. All other quotes obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of stats.nbadleague.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.