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Robert Upshaw could be a star if he overcomes his demons

Robert Upshaw has the basketball down. It's everything else that's up in the air for NBA teams.

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CHICAGO -- Robert Upshaw left the biggest impression at the NBA Draft combine without ever needing to lift his knees to run. Upshaw measured at an even 7 feet in shoes and came away with the longest wingspan (7'5.5), biggest standing reach (9'5) and the largest hands of any player in attendance.

Of course, size isn't Upshaw's problem. During his abbreviated time at Washington this season, Upshaw proved he was exceptional at being the biggest player on the court. He blocked 85 shots in 19 games, hit nearly 60 percent from the field and became the most menacing interior defender in the country. Game tape isn't Robert Upshaw's problem, either.

To get to the root of Upshaw's issues is to accept an invitation to an uncomfortable conversation. It starts with the delicacy of addiction and the trouble that can come when youth basketball players get too much too fast. It's about failed second chances and the acceptance of one's own problems. It's not about basketball so much as it is the every day struggles of humanity.

"It's been a long process," Upshaw said at the draft combine. "I've had a lot of education around drugs and alcohol. A lot of things I've been through, I haven't kept them a secret. I've just been working on myself with a team of people that are close to me to have structure and success at the next level."

The first thing you need to know about Upshaw is that the stumbling blocks that led to his dismissal from Washington were not an isolated incident. It stretches back to the center's time at Fresno State, where he entered the program as a top-50 recruit and as a purported savior for coach Rodney Terry's program. Fresno suspended Upshaw twice in five weeks as a freshman for an undisclosed violation of team rules. When he slipped up again, Terry kicked him off the team.

Upshaw examined his options and chose to go with Lorenzo Romar and the Huskies. Romar would be hard on him, which he felt he needed. That tough-love policy even extended to the year Upshaw was forced to sit out as a transfer. Romar would often limit Upshaw's participation in practice or his ability to sit on the bench during games if he wasn't going to class and controlling himself away from the floor.

When Upshaw finally got back on the court at the start of this season, he lived up to every bit of potential he flashed on the recruiting trail. He averaged 4.5 blocks per game and helped the Huskies make an unlikely run to the top 25 after starting the season 11-0. He proved he could handle even the top big men in the nation when he finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and six blocks against Utah's Jakob Poeltl on Jan. 25.

Unfortunately, that would be the last game Upshaw ever played in college. He was booted from the team the next day for another vague violation of team rules. Without him, the Huskies finished the season just 2-10.


(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

What has Upshaw been doing since January? For one, he hasn't been playing basketball. Upshaw could have followed the path P.J. Hairston took after getting kicked out of North Carolina a year ago and played in the D-League. Instead, he chose to focus on bettering himself as a person.

As Upshaw will tell you, it's been a long process. He went through counseling. He hired a life coach. He cut certain people out of his life and added more positive influences. He understands where he went wrong. Now it's about suppressing his impulses and proving to NBA teams he won't make the same mistakes again.

"I hit my rock bottom at Washington when I left," Upshaw said. "It was a surprise. I didn't think it was going to happen. I thought I was doing so well that [Romar] was going keep me around. It was just, I made a lot of bad decisions before that.

"I realized that I'm 21 years old, I got a family to feed and food is not going to put itself on the table. I have one more opportunity to accomplish my goals and be able to take care of my family. I have one chance and I'm gonna sacrifice and do anything possible."

Upshaw played five-on-five basketball for the first time since leaving Washington just last week. He's been working out at P3 in Santa Barbara and hired Bill Duffy as his agent, the same man who represents Rajon Rondo, Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson.

Along the way, the education has never stopped. That's included an unlikely proponent in his corner: Bill Walton.

Walton called Pac-12 games throughout the season and used Upshaw's dismissal as a platform to take on America's outdated marijuana laws at a game earlier this season. Walton reached out to Upshaw about a month ago and welcomed him to his southern California home to talk about overcoming his own personal struggles. Upshaw described the experience as "like going to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory."

Along the way, the education has never stopped. That's included an unlikely proponent in his corner: Bill Walton.

"We just talked about everything he went through," Upshaw said. "The struggle. Basketball for him, his injuries, his addiction. It's been a great experience. It's really been humbling to see somebody who has established himself to have me at his house and talk to me, it's great."

Now Upshaw is approaching the hardest part of his journey. He can't just get clean; he has to stay that way. If he can do it, there could be a hundred million dollars in his future.

At his best, Upshaw projects as a DeAndre Jordan-type, right down to the 40 percent free throw shooting. He could be a dominant shot-blocker and defender on one end and a screen setter and rim roller on the other. He says he's been working on his perimeter skills as well and is trying to model his game after LaMarcus Aldridge. He also knows it will only happen if he can stay disciplined.

With incredible size and an intrinsic knack for blocking shots, basketball always came easy to Upshaw. If he can control everything else, a team is going to find a talented big man way later in the draft than should be possible.