Where was Danny Green before he was Danny Green? Or Hassan Whiteside? Or Kent Bazemore? How did they develop from a little known talent to the stardom they enjoy today? The answer isn't hard to find. They did it in the D-League.
Zeke Upshaw is another little known talent. Standing at 6’6” and boasting a silky smooth jumper, the undrafted guard/forward out of Hofstra is finding his footing with the Grand Rapids Drive after being taken with the third pick in the fourth round of this year’s D-League draft.
“My agent put the option on the table to go into the draft before I went to Helios my rookie year actually” Upshaw told Ridiculous Upside. “Prior to this season we discussed it again and decided we should put my name in.”
Upshaw got the call from Helios following a breakout season at Hofstra, where he was a graduate transfer. In his lone season, he set the record for three pointers made (91) and averaged 19.8 points per game in 33 starts. Before breaking records as a member of the Pride, he was a well known prep player out of Chicago that saw little playing time at Illinois State. After redshirting as a freshman, Upshaw would barely see the court for the remainder of his career. He would use this as an opportunity to get his degree and with his one year of eligibility left, soon found a home at Hofstra following his graduation.
“I had some big scoring games my senior season, but what was most important to me was winning games with my teammates.” said Upshaw. “Coach Mihalic gave me an opportunity to play after not playing much at Illinois State. That whole season was special.”
He was able to turn that special season into a special opportunity with Helios and then later with Basket Esch, two professional teams overseas. While with Helios as a rookie, Upshaw averaged a solid 9.5 points and 3.1 rebounds in just about 23 minutes of action a night but he really came onto the scene with Basket Esch, where he averaged 20 points and 7.5 rebounds in 36 minutes per game.
“Playing overseas was a great experience and I actually think it prepared me for this opportunity in the D-League.” Upshaw explained. “There are always growing pains, in terms of learning the overseas game and adjusting to life, but overall, very positive.”
There are many different roads to the D-League. Some get there through assignment, others are affiliates that were cut and stashed there through an NBA club, a good majority rely on the open tryouts that are held in the offseason and then later drafted. Notable San Antonio Spurs rotation player Jonathan Simmons was famously found via an open tryout. But Upshaw was able to avoid the tryout and get drafted based on his accomplishments overseas.
“I didn't attend any tryout camps and I wasn't sure where I was going to end up” stated Upshaw . “A few teams had expressed interest to BJ (Agent BJ Bass) before the draft. I was actually working out when he called to tell me that Grand Rapids had drafted me.”
Since getting to the D-League, Upshaw has turned heads. He has shown that he is something that every team wants right now, a sharpshooter that is tall and quick enough to play three positions at any given time. His versatility and consistency shooting the ball is what makes him so valuable. Standing at 6’6”, he gives opposing shooting guards and small forwards trouble with his height on both sides of the ball. On offense, he can usually shoot right over his defender with little problem and on defense he is lanky enough to disrupt passing lanes and make things difficult on the perimeter.
He is currently averaging 8.94 points and 4.33 rebounds in 28 minutes of action but he has had big scoring outings on several occasions, including seven games where he scored 12+ points and scored a season high 23 points against the Sioux Falls Skyforce. He has hit at least three shot from deep nine times so far this season, showing what he can offer teams at the next level. Adjusting to the D-League is something players coming from overseas have to do, but it seems Upshaw has assimilated nicely.
“The game is faster and guys are stronger and longer over here for sure” Upshaw said. “There’s a lot of serious talent in this league. I’m blessed to be playing the game I love and getting paid to do it, with NBA teams scouting the league every night.”
Upshaw still has to show some consistency in his offensive game and prove to NBA scouts he can be a good enough defender to be in an NBA rotation before he starts to get serious looks. He has all the physical tools to become a great player and he has show that he can score, especially from deep, in a major way.
If he continues to develop, keep consistently hits three to four shots per game from deep, and demonstrates he is a serviceable defender then there is no doubt he will get serious looks from teams that are constantly mining the D-League for the next bargain star.