Though this has been the season of Kobe in Los Angeles, Bryant hasn't been the only #24 to excite the Lakers fanbase throughout the year. Robert Upshaw, the 7'0, 250 pound center for the Los Angeles D-Fenders has intrigued fans even before the season kicked off and his recent play has ignited that even further.
After going undrafted this past year, Upshaw was a hot commodity on the undrafted free agent market. His combination of size, defensive talent and a foundation to work from on the offensive side was appealing to many teams around the league, but Los Angeles was lucky enough to be able to grab him.
Despite the hype, he started off this season a bit rocky with the D-Fenders. Shooting less than 36% throughout the eight games of November, Upshaw saw that jump to 44.6% in December and 50% in January. His improvement has continued on throughout the month of February and it seems as if he's really getting acclimated to the quick pace that many teams play at, as well as the overall level of skill in the D-League.
Throughout February, he's been taking the most shots per game that he has in any month (9.7), but he's also scoring more efficiently than ever (55.2% from the field). This increased role in the offense has served as a confidence builder for him and with Justin Harper signing a ten-day contract with the Detroit Pistons, he could wind up taking on even more responsibility.
A player with his size is typically expected to be a classic back-to-the-basket big man, Upshaw has been able to showcase a workable jump shot that could help ease his transition to the next level. During the month of February, he's been hitting 40% of his jumpers and appears to be growing more comfortable with stepping out of the post.
His improved jump shot has allowed him to impact defensive schemes not only by just stepping out and hitting shots, but he's become pretty crafty on how/when he uses the pump fake. This portion of his game has allowed him to beat defenders off the dribble even though he doesn't have elite athleticism.
While he has been adding that jumper to his offensive arsenal, he's still more than capable of working out of the post like a traditional big man. His hook shot is still a bit of a work in progress, but his size in the post allows him to stll have an advantage against most defenders that he goes up against.
He has made some pretty big strides this season on the offensive end, but there's still work to go. He's a very below average free throw shooter which will impact him in the same way that it has players like DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond. If he can get his shooting touch to transfer over to the free throw line, however, that shouldn't be a problem as his career moves on.
In addition to his work at the free throw line, he's not much of a passer out of the post, either. He has just 10 assists on the season and has made some poor decisions this year when he has the ball in his hands. On the positive side of that, he still does look to pass a decent portion of the time, so it's just a matter of learning to make the right decisions rather than some unwillingness to get the ball out of his hands.
He has the potential to be a great roll man on the pick-and-roll, but he can often be lackadaisical when setting screens. In most cases this can kill the flow of the offense, so he certainly needs to take a step forward in that department if he wants that to be a consistent part of his game at the next level. He's already a good finisher though, so a major part of the equation is already set there, too.
On the defensive end is where he was expected to make his mark and he has managed to do that thus far, though there are also some holes in his game here that he could work on. He came to Los Angeles after being a feared shot blocker at the college level and his length has allowed him to continue that in the D-League.
His work as a rim protector was lauded, but many scouting reports noted that he needed work guarding on the ball while in the post. It's clear that Casey Owens and the rest of the coaching staff have made an impact on him here, as you can already seen him getting lower and bending his knees while he's getting backed down
Looking a little bit deeper, there is still room for development for him on that end. He generally knows where to be with his help defense, but when he is forced to defend pick-and-roll situations he's often found out of place which leads to easy buckets. Here, his work hedging the P&R isn't all that bad, but he doesn't see his man driving to the rim.
In another P&R situation he again hedges correctly, but he doesn't close out on his man. This issue has come up somewhat frequently both this season and in his college days and it won't work out well against big men like Rakeem Christmas that can hit when given looks like this.
Overall, the past couple of months have given a great glimpse into the type of player that Upshaw can become. He's slowly but surely been improving his conditioning and that, along with the improvements that he's made all across his game, have to leave Los Angeles fans feeling optimistic for his future.
Much like any other player currently at the D-League level he has work to do both offensively and defensively, but the last two months have shown that the positive outweighs the negative with Upshaw. If he continues to progress the way that he has, he will be a great addition to an NBA team.