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


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."

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is fed up with being underestimated and he’s going to do something about it. The Bulls guard has been having a strong pre-season so far but is looking to improve his skills as a two-way player.

“I’m just tired of people talking shit about my defense,” LaVine said. “I’ve always been a good on-ball defender. But there’s no reason I can be this good offensively and not be that on the defensive end.”

“I’m taking more pride in it,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll show. I’ll make sure of that.”

If you think LaVine sounds confident, he has good reason to be. Last season LaVine was one of only ten players to average at least 23 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, making him stand out as an elite player in the company of MVPs and All-Stars. LaVine’s personal triumphs, however, were overshadowed by the Bulls abysmal 22-60 record last season.

So far, this preseason LaVine has been looking better on defense, averaging 1.3 steals per game through three preseason games. Any improvements on defense will greatly help LaVine’s All-Star case.

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3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

The Bulls recorded their first win of the preseason with Sunday night’s 105-91 win over the Raptors. Here are three takeaways:

We got a peek at Jim Boylen's regular-season rotation

We had a clue that Boylen was going to go with Tomas Satoransky as his starter after he chose to sit him with the starters in the Bulls third preseason game against the Indiana Pacers. Sunday confirmed this idea. Boylen stated before the game that he would be starting to roll out his regular season rotations, and we saw "Sato" start next to the regular Bulls starting group of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and the returning Wendell Carter Jr.

On top of seeing the starting group, we got to see Thaddeus Young in his probable role as the sixth man, coming in for Carter to provide the Bulls with more of a small look where Markkanen acts as the center.

Markkanen was particularly effective on the glass against the smaller Raptors frontline sans Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Lauri collected a double-double, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including four offensive rebounds. 

Giving an even greater effort on the glass will push Markkanen closer to All-Star status and it is not out of the question as we have seen him raise his rebounding average every season. Games like Sunday night's show that all of the muscle Markkanen added this offseason is going to pay dividends in the 2019-20 NBA regular season and beyond, which will allow the Bulls to play smaller more often to get dynamic scorers like Coby White on the floor.

White came in as a substitute for Porter, giving the Bulls another small-ball lineup in which LaVine acts as the small forward next to him and Satoransky.

Satoransky was great, finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes. Sato pushed the pace but also could sense the right time to pull the ball back out and run a play in the halfcourt.

In general, the Bulls trotted out more three-guard lineups in this game, and the size of big guards like Satoransky and Kris Dunn help the Bulls blur the lines between wing and guard, mitigating some of the risks involved with not having a traditional wing on the floor.

On the flip side, the perimeter skills of a big man like Young allow the Bulls to play bigger lineups in which Young plays small forward next to two big men. In Sunday night's win over the Raptors, Young finished the game second on the Bulls in rebounds (7) and assists (3), while being in the right spot more times than not on D. 

With stretch-five Luke Kornet (2-of-7 from 3-point line vs Raptors), the gritty, playmaking Ryan Arcidiacono (3 assists, no turnovers), and rookie Daniel Gafford rounding out the rest of the new Bulls' Bench Mob," Boylen will have the ability to play many different ways, affording us a fair chance to see what he is made of as an NBA head coach. He is already passing his first test of showing that he is open to change, with the Bulls shooting 49 3-pointers on Sunday night, keeping their promise of being more aggressive from deep.

The Zach LaVine All-Star push starts now 

Overall, Zach LaVine has not been shy about already being at an All-Star level of play, you just have to ask him.

LaVine came into Sunday night's game sixth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 22.0 points per game through two contests, and he kept up that scoring onslaught in a big way. He finished Sunday's win over the Raptors with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in just 24 minutes of action. He finished the night with four turnovers as well, and while you would like to see the assist-to-turnover ratio improve, high turnover totals are just the name of the game for high-usage stars.

Besides, Boylen and Co. likely would rather see LaVine collect some turnovers trying to make the extra pass—something the Bulls have committed to hard this preseason—rather than trying to iso and make a play for himself.

Notably, the LaVine-Markkanen pick-and-roll that figures to be a staple of the Bulls offense for a long time again made an appearance in this game, looking crisp at moments as defenses struggle with scrambling to Markkanen at the 3-point line or worrying more about LaVine's oftentimes dominant drives to the rim.

While it is encouraging to see LaVine score effortlessly, that is not a new development for Bulls fans. The true mark of improvement for LaVine will be his defense and playmaking, both of which looked good on Sunday night.

LaVine racked up two steals and showed an improved awareness and aggressiveness when prowling the passing lanes. What makes defense so huge for LaVine, besides the fact that his effort-level sets the tone for the team, is that he so often turns opponent turnovers into points in transition for Chicago.

The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 17 points off of turnovers in their win over the Raptors, with LaVine's efforts playing a large hand in the win. 

Coby White continues to score in bunches 

It has been stated many times how Coby White was more of a shooting guard in high school and only transitioned into being more a lead guard at North Carolina. And those natural scoring instincts have shown up time and time again in the NBA preseason, especially in transition. 

If you get White going towards the rim with a head of steam in transition, he will make it to the basket before the 24-second shot clock hits the 19-second mark, a remarkable display of his blazing speed.

Of course, everything is to be taken with a grain of salt in the NBA preseason, as we are often seeing White (and others) face off against a team's backups or even worse, players that won't even make an NBA roster. But what White has done well should play in the regular season, too. He scored 18 points on 37.5% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of his 12 attempts from 3-point range. White was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with one assist and no turnovers. 

It looks like it will be a while before we see Coby White look like an NBA-level floor general but he is already playing like an uber-confident, spark plug shooting guard.

The Bulls can utilize White's scoring in the regular season knowing that even if his court vision isn't where they want it to be, his shoot-first mentality and propensity to keep the ball moving should result in lower turnover totals than your usual score-first point guard.