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."

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

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AP

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

Don't tell Wendell Carter Jr. the center position is a dying breed.

The 19-year-old rookie hasn't exactly been able to ease into the NBA, finding himself up against a handful of All-Stars and powerful frontcourts just five days into his career.

It culminated Monday night with a date against Mavericks center DeAndre Jordan, and once again the seventh overall pick held his own. It was much of the same as it was against Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Detroit's Andre Drummond last week (and Nikola Jokic in the preseason finale): some good, some bad, plenty of poise and zero backing down. The NBA is unforgiving, but this could very well be the toughest stretch Carter faces all season.

"He’s playing against top level centers now," Fred Hoiberg said before Monday's game. "It’s a great experience for him. He’s going to learn and get better and he plays within himself, we will continue to look for him to be more aggressive."

He was as aggressive as the Bulls have seen him against Jordan and the Mavericks. He blew by the 20 and 18 minutes he played in the first two games of the year, totalling 32 minutes. His final line won't tell the story - 4 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and a block - of a Carter who defended well at the rim, picking and choosing his spots on when to attack shots and when to simply use his verticality.

He wasn't credited for a block but he contested a Jordan dunk that turned into a Bobby Portis dunk on the other end. Plus-minus isn't always a good indicator of a player's worth, but Carter was a +5 in a 14-point Bulls loss. He even attempted a corner 3-pointer early in the shot clock, showing no hesitation. Carter's had his moments, but it's also apparent he's got a 19-year-old body going up against veterans each night. That'll come with time in the weight room. For now the experience is 

"I appreciate the fact I’m able to play against these very talented bigs early in my career," Carter said after the loss to the Pistons. "What I need to work on is I have to get stronger; that’s the first thing I recognize; just being up against the best. I love the competition. It’s always a great feeling going against the best."

What the Bulls are finding out is they have a player mature beyond his years. As he progresses he'll continue to get more difficult assignments. He had his rookie moment late in Monday's loss, committing a turnover in the backcourt after the Bulls had cut the deficit to five with 35 seconds left. The fouls are also an issue, as Carter has committed 10 in three games (after committing 17 in five preseason games).

That doesn't necessarily seem important for a Lottery-bound team, but considering the continued struggles of Robin Lopez (and Cristiano Felicio is entirely out of the rotation) it is. Lopez had 2 points and 1 rebound in 10 minutes while committing five personal fouls. In three games he has 11 personal fouls and 11 points, and also has more turnovers (five) than rebounds (four). If the Bulls are going to compete until Lauri Markkanen returns, Carter will need to hover around the 32 minutes he played Monday.

He'll get a much easier test on Wednesday when the Charlotte Hornets arrive in town. Cody Zeller doesn't exactly have the credentials of a Jokic or Embiid, meaning Carter may have a little more room to work. 

The Bulls know they have something in Carter. It'll be abother month until they can deploy him alongside Markkanen, but if the first three games are any indication, Carter won't have any problems matching up with some of the league's best.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Moral victory for the Bears?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Moral victory for the Bears?

David Schuster, Adam Jahns and Patrick Finley join Kap on the panel.

0:00- Dave Wannstedt joins the panel to discuss the Bears 38-31 loss to the Patriots? Was it a moral victory? Is Matt Nagy crazy to say Mitch Trubisky didn’t play that bad?

13:00- Joe Girardi pulls his name out of the Reds managerial search and Jon Heyman reports that industry sources believe he might wait to see if there’s an opening in Chicago. What are the chances that he replaces Joe Maddon?

14:30- Adam Amin joins Kap to preview the Bulls/Mavericks game and discuss the lack of defense in the NBA.