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."

Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short


Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short

Lauri Markkanen doesn't often feel short.

The Bulls forward is 7-feet tall, which even in the land of NBA giants makes him one of the tallest players on the court at all times. So when Markkanen stands next to Yao Ming, it changes perspective quite a bit.

Markkanen posted a photo with him and the 7-foot-6 Chinese Hall of Famer. Markkanen looks like a child.

Makes you wonder if Markkanen pulled some "What's the weather like up there?" jokes just because he otherwise never can.


Could Derrick Walton Jr. become the solution at backup PG?


Could Derrick Walton Jr. become the solution at backup PG?

Former Miami Heat two-way player Derrick Walton Jr. is reported to be nearing a deal with the Bulls. In an interview with The Athletic, it was stated: "Walton, 23, says he knows where he’ll play next season. An agreement is in place, but his agent, Mark Bartelstein, is requiring him to sit on the news until next week. All Walton can put out publicly is this: 'Long story short, I’m good. I’m going to a great situation. All I can say.' "

And while it is not yet known if the potential contract will be a two-way deal or not, Walton would provide an intriguing lottery ticket for the Bulls. 

The team mostly ignored looking for a backup point guard on the market. There is obviously a belief in the organization that Cameron Payne will have some internal growth, making him the best option. And the trade of Jerian Grant for essentially nothing, shows even more that Payne is there guy. Retaining Ryan Arcidiacono is a nice move considering the hustle that he showed last season at both the G League and NBA level, but it still leaves the Bulls thin in terms of established backup PGs behind Kris Dunn. And that is where Walton comes into play. 

Walton was a four-year player at the University of Michigan, where he played in some big-time games and showed immense leadership potential. But in terms of strictly on the court skills, there is one thing that he does extremely well: space the floor. 

In his four years at Michigan, Walton took a total of 581 3-point attempts, and knocked them down at a 40.1 percent rate. His elite shooting is enough to make him a legitimate rotation player for Fred Hoiberg. And while Payne still may develop into a better player, his outside shooting is his calling card despite never being elite at that skill at the NBA level. And in fact, when you compare he and Walton’s stats from college, the G League and the NBA, it becomes apparent who is the better shooter right now.

3-point percentage at NCAA level: Payne- 35.9 percent, Walton- 40.1 percent
3-point percentage at G League level: Payne- 33.8 percent, Walton- 37.7 percent
3-point percentage at NBA level: Payne- 34 percent, Walton- 41.2 percent

Now obviously, there is a “small sample size alert” for the NBA level, as Walton has only taken 17 3-pointers at the NBA level in his limited time with the Miami Heat. But these numbers show that even dating back to their freshman years of college, Walton has been the more efficient shooter from 3-point range.

Cameron Payne has the edge when it comes to playmaking, and this is based off of the fact that Payne has maintained an assist rate above 30 percent through all of his G League stints, while also having a low turnover rate (9.9 percent). Walton didn’t come close to Payne in terms of G League assist rate, and his 17.9 percent turnover rate at the G League level shows that his decision-making has yet to catch up to his shooting. 

Ultimately, Walton is going to be most effective as an off-ball guard who can make quick decisions, and knockdown the 3-point shot at a high level. Though if Summer League was any indication, his passing out of the pick-and-roll is getting better. And while Payne certainly is a good shooter, his game is much more predicated on having the ball in his hands, and playing in the pick-and-roll. With so many players on the Bulls who can create their own shot, Walton could end up being the cleanest fit with this constantly evolving Bulls roster.