While the Lakers are in Miami on Tuesday to play the Heat, undrafted center Robert Upshaw posed for a photo in his D-Fenders uniform at the team’s annual media day.
Upshaw, a 7-foot center with a massive wingspan, joined the Lakers for both summer league and training camp, but was waived before the regular season. Instead, he’s an affiliate player with the Lakers’ NBA Development League squad.
“I knew I was going to be cut. I knew that before anybody,” Upshaw told the Los Angeles Times.
“I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been through really a lot in the past year and a half,” he said. “You don’t get opportunities like that after you’ve done what I’ve done. I’ve just tried to put that behind me, use this opportunity, because I know at some point this year I’ll be playing in the NBA.”
Upshaw, who was released from two college programs (Fresno State and Washington) for team violations, is open about his battles with drugs and alcohol. He once missed a college game because he was out late the night before, under the impression the team only had a practice scheduled the following day.
Despite averaging 10.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and an outstanding 4.5 blocks a game before his dismissal from Washington, none of the NBA franchises in the draft were willing to take a gamble on Upshaw.
The Lakers wanted a look in summer league, but Upshaw arrived out of shape -- partially because he was red-flagged with a potential heart issue leading up to the draft that he ultimately cleared.
A camp invite, with just $35,000 of his two-year $1.4-million contract guaranteed, was waiting for him with the Lakers -- provided he put in the work and go through counseling for his off-court issues.
The 21-year-old center successfully put in the work, losing 25 pounds by the time the Lakers met in late September, a sign that in the right environment, Upshaw could be productive.
“I just surround myself with the right people,” said Upshaw of his lifestyle changes and battle to stay sober. “I’ve always been a yes-man, I still kind of am to this day, but I have people around me to help me with that. It’s tough man, I still struggle with it. I’m not perfect.
“My thing is, I got the help that I need and have people around me. I’m doing really well right now. I’m making all my meetings and everything. I’m just laying low and that’s pretty much what I had to do.”
The Lakers didn’t see enough from Upshaw to warrant cutting the $1-million guaranteed contract of Robert Sacre for Upshaw. While Sacre gives the Lakers everything he has, mostly on the practice floor, Upshaw didn’t match Sacre’s effort.
But of his former Lakers teammates, Upshaw said he learned the most from Sacre.
“I think Robert Sacre is one of the most high-energy people. He didn’t have an off day,” said Upshaw. "... That’s something that being a good teammate is all about.”
Upshaw also praised Tarik Black, as well as Kobe Bryant, who Upshaw said “has a killer mentality in everything he does from icing his knee to shooting a [jumper]. Just to be around him for that amount of time really instilled a few things in me.”
After clearing waivers when the other 29 teams chose to pass, Upshaw is still free to sign with any NBA franchise, even as an affiliate player with the Lakers.
In the meantime, he’ll have the opportunity to show what he has learned in the quick-paced, perimeter-oriented D-League.
“This game is crazy. It’s a fast tempo. You’re scoring 120-points-plus a game. I think we’re going to win a lot of games with the team that we have and the defense that we have,” said Upshaw.
“It’s kind of the same thing we did with the Lakers. It’s just a quicker pace to the game, more shots, more guys getting their hands on the ball,” he said. “It’s a completely different game than what I played before.”
Upshaw will be asked to run the floor, rebound and block shots -- perhaps even score. Most players of his size are either in the NBA or playing overseas, but neither is an option just yet for Upshaw.
“Overseas is a better opportunity than this one is, financially, but I’m not here for those reasons. I’m here to become a great basketball player and if I have to go through this, I’m going to do it,” he said. “I’m definitely going to be playing basketball in the NBA. I don’t see myself playing ball overseas for a while. It’s just always been a goal and I’ve never given up, I’ve never quit.”
More than anything, Upshaw needs to show that he’s willing to work hard, and stay clean.
“I never really had to work hard. I get to college, I dominated,” he said. “When I got to college, I was content. Everybody around me was allowing me to do it. They waited till the end to try to fix things.”
To succeed, Upshaw said he needs to recognize that he’s responsible for his own choices, not others.
“I just got to work hard every day, that’s the mentality I come with,” he said. “I’ve got to be the first guy in here and the last guy out, most of the time.”
More than most of the time -- all of the time, given his past and uncertain future.
“I know what hard work is. I’ve worked hard to be where I am at today,” he said. “I know what hard work is, it’s just consistency.”
Once projected to be a lottery pick, Upshaw will have the chance to show he’s more than a 7-foot contradiction this season in the NBA Development League with the D-Fenders.