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.
[NBC SHOP: Get your Bulls NBA Draft hat right here!]
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.
[PLAYER PROFILES: Get yourself ready for the NBA Draft!]
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."