Bulls

NBA Draft: Robert Upshaw trying to prove he's worth the risk

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NBA Draft: Robert Upshaw trying to prove he's worth the risk

Robert Upshaw addressed the media at last month's NBA Draft Combine like a player with two strikes.

His 15-minute interview with reporters didn't include laid-back questions about what he might wear to the draft on June 25. No one tossed him a softball in asking which NBA player he'd most like to dunk on, or what the wildest question he was asked in personal interviews was.

Instead the 21-year-old 7-footer, who was kicked off two different college teams in successive seasons, confronted his problems head-on, admitted his mistakes and gave his best sell as to why an organization should take a chance on the draft's biggest risk.

"I put myself in this situation," Upshaw said. "At the end of the day if I want to be successful, that's what I have to do."

Upshaw, a Fresno, Calif., native, found himself at Fresno State after being released from his commitment from Kansas State following head coach Frank Martin's departure to South Carolina. A four-star recruit ranked No. 52 in the 2012 class by Rivals, the hometown kid had a turbulent season with the Bulldogs.

He violated team rules on three separate occasions, earning him two different suspensions during the season that cost him four games, including a Mountain West conference tournament game. His third violation resulted in his dismissal from the team. He averaged just 4.1 points and 3.8 rebounds in 16.4 minutes per game, but showed flashes of defensive prowess in blocking 39 shots.

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He found new life at Washington - a school he had considered before landing at Fresno State - or so he thought. In his redshirt sophomore season he averaged 10.9 points and 8.2 rebounds, and also led the NCAA with 4.5 blocks per game. But again his off-the-court decisions held him back, as head coach Lorenzo Romar dismissed Upshaw from the team in late January for a violation of team rules - reportedly for failed drug tests, as had also been the case at Fresno State. It was then that Upshaw admitted he hit "rock bottom" after what he called a "surprise" being kicked off the team.

Instead of transferring to a third school and being required to sit out a year, per NCAA rules, Upshaw declared for the NBA Draft. From a basketball perspective he's still trying to get back into playing shape, having 15-20 fewer games under his belt than many fellow members of his draft class. Had it not been for his off-the-court concerns, Upshaw would be considered among one of the top centers in this year's draft.

Already the deepest position in the class, Upshaw's combination of size, talent and athleticism are on par with the likes of Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Tows and Willie Cauley-Stein, expected top-10 picks later this month. He measured 7-feet in shoes with a 7-foot-6 wingspan at the Combine, elite numbers for a center; in comparison, Kentucky's Nerlens Noel measured 7-feet with a 7-foot-4 wingspan at the 2013 combine.

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But the concerns are there. And in a league where one wrong draft pick can set a franchise back years, there are serious question marks about whether taking a risk on a player with such a checkered past is worth the potential upside.

It's an image Upshaw is working diligently to improve. He spent time after his second dismissal at John Lucas' rehabilitation center. He stayed in contact with Washington alums and NBA players including Brandon Roy, Spencer Hawes, Tony Wroten and Nate Robinson. He hired a life coach that helped him understand "every small thing is critical in life." Upshaw understands this is his final strike to prove he can overcome his off-the-court demons.

"I'm 21 years old, I got a family to feed. And the food's not going to put itself on the table," he said. "I have one more opportunity to accomplish my goals and take care of my family, so I'm going to sacrifice and do everything possible.

"I have a clear understanding of what's gone on in my life. And unlike most people in my situation, I've been able to identify the wrongs and I'm able to go through the experiences and I've been able to learn from them."

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

LOS ANGELES—Kris Dunn wanted to have some fun in the Rising Stars game while Lauri Markkanen wanted to get a win.

Both accomplished their goals, being on opposite sides for the first time as the best first and second year players were divided into U.S. and International teams, with the World Team winning 155-124 Friday night at Staples Center.

It wasn’t set up for either Dunn or Markkanen to truly stand out considering the presence of Lakers and Celtics players who were more notable and flashy, along with the spectacular exploits of rookies Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Dennis Smith Jr (Denver).

Those two certainly wowed the crowd at times with half-court alley-oop passes, giving a preview of what Saturday night will look like, considering both will be in the dunk contest.

Dunn scored nine points in 18 minutes while Markkanen scored 15 in 22 minutes. Both came off the bench, ceding to the likes of Sacramento’s Buddy Hield (29 points) and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who turned the game into his own 3-point showcase with 30-foot bombs, hitting seven triples for 26 points off the bench.

Boston’s Jaylen Brown led all scorers with 35 points and 10 rebounds, playing for the U.S. team, showing his entire bag of tricks with spectacular dunks and dribble moves for jumpers.

Markkanen had his moments in the “game within a game” category. When prompted by World coach Rex Kalamian that the first player to get a block would get $100, Markkanen tipped the next shot at the rim and pointed to the scorer’s table, but wasn’t credited with the block.

However, he felt like he got his pound of flesh with Dunn on a tip-dunk. The two didn’t have their moment

“I almost jumped over his head. That counts,” he joked.

Dunn made sure that although he and Markkanen were on opposite sides that he remained Markkanen’s biggest fan.

When asked who was his pick for rookie of the year, he repeatedly said “Lauri Markkanen”, over the likes of Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma from the Lakers, another standout rookie.

His reasoning was simple.

“Why? He hit eight threes in Madison Square Garden,” Dunn said, half-jokingly.

Half-jokingly.

“For Lauri to be a rookie and have so much confidence in himself and to play in big time games, especially at Madison Square Garden. I’m gonna keep bringing that game up. Because He had eight three’s. You don’t see that too mnay times. Lauri is a big player for us,” Dunn said.

Markkanen probably won’t win the award but to see Dunn so steadfastly support his teammate in this way is a good sign for a budding relationship, despite the light moments of competitiveness where Dunn said he wanted to take advantage of Markkanen on the perimeter.

Markkanen’s game has been aided by Dunn on the floor and one could see how the quality of looks Markkanen had in the past few weeks suffered with Dunn out due to a concussion.

Dunn’s turnaround directly led to the Bulls turning around their season in December, and he remembers what he was doing this time last year at the All-Star break when he wasn’t selected to be part of the rookie challenge.

“Thibs had me in the gym,” Dunn said.

It seemed unlikely but he’s rebounded nicely, being a shoo-in for 15 points, eight assists and two steals on a nightly basis. Turning the corner has been a bright spot in the season.

“I wouldn’t say a specific game but each and every game I started to get more comfortable, not with myself but with my team,” Dunn said. “Being a point guard, you gotta build that chemistry with your teammates and try to figure out where everybody needs the ball. How you can be aggressive and lead at the same time.”