Robert Upshaw's long journey from bust to budding stardom

The Dagger
Robert Upshaw's long journey from bust to budding stardom
Robert Upshaw's long journey from bust to budding stardom

Basketball coach Pat Geil has removed many players from practice for lackluster effort or shoddy performance.

Only once has he yanked a kid off the court for doing too well.

When Robert Upshaw enrolled at San Joaquin Memorial High School four years ago, the highly touted 6-foot-11 junior initially could only practice with his new team because of California transfer rules. Geil put Upshaw on the scout team in practice until the center's knack for swatting away shots in the paint created an unusual problem.

"He was blocking so many shots and making it so difficult to score that our starting big guys began losing confidence," Geil said. "When they got in games, they were hesitant to shoot. Eventually, we had to tell Rob, 'Why don't you sit out for a while.' Our big guys couldn't get up any shots against him in practice and it was killing us."

Scoring against Upshaw hasn't been any easier for opposing college players this season than it was for his San Joaquin Memorial teammates four years ago. The University of Washington sophomore is turning away shots at an absurd pace, averaging a national-best 4.8 blocks despite coming off the bench every game this season and only logging 19.1 minutes per night.

The emergence of Upshaw as a defensive anchor is a huge reason 16th-ranked Washington has won its first nine games and held opponents to an anemic 33 percent shooting. The Huskies' array of tall, athletic guards have been able to defend aggressively and close out hard on 3-point shooters without fear of being beaten off the dribble since they know there's a shot blocker with a 7-foot-51/2-inch wingspan lurking in the paint to erase mistakes.

Upshaw's impact on defense isn't the only way he has contributed to Washington's quest to end a three-year NCAA tournament drought. The former top 50 recruit has also averaged an efficient 10.9 points and a team-high 7.1 rebounds, further validating the Washington staff's decision to offer him a second chance after Fresno State dismissed him from school the summer after his freshman season.

"What I've tried to do is be the person Washington has been missing, a big man that can block shots, run the floor, rebound and also score," Upshaw said. "I'm having success but I'm not satisfied. I know I can be a lot better than what I am right now. I think this is the start of what I can be, and I just have to keep improving."

Upshaw's evolution into an impact college player and an NBA prospect is a testament to his perseverance because there were times when it seemed his basketball career had stalled.

This is a guy who averaged an underwhelming 4.1 points and 3.8 rebounds as a freshman at Fresno State despite arriving with more hype than any recruit the school has landed in years. This is a guy who Fresno State coach Rodney Terry suspended twice as a freshman for team rules violations and eventually decided was more trouble than he was worth. This is a guy whose spot on the Washington roster was in jeopardy last spring after the coaching staff banned him from attending practices or games so he could address his off-court issues.

"I think it has made Rob a stronger person fighting through so many obstacles to get to this point," said his mother Ceylon Sherman. "Rob has always been a sweet, caring person, but the decisions and choices he was making weren't the right ones. He has matured a lot over the last year or two. Now he appreciates what he has more because he had to work harder to achieve it."


Before Upshaw could evolve into an elite basketball prospect, he first had to give the sport a chance.

Upshaw's mom played from third grade through high school and both his older brothers were basketball players too, but he preferred soccer and baseball. Only after he rocketed up to 6-8 entering eighth grade did he finally grow tired of his family's not-so-subtle encouragement and decide to give basketball a try.

Even though Upshaw hadn't played basketball nearly as long as most of his peers and he was in such poor shape that he'd get tired after a couple trips down the floor, his size, footwork and coordination enabled him to quickly emerge as a potential Division I prospect anyway. By the end of his sophomore year at Edison High School, Louisville, Georgetown, Texas, Arizona and UCLA were among the many programs dispatching coaches to Fresno in order to pursue him.

Out of a large pool of elite programs Upshaw signed with Kansas State in November 2011 because of his strong bond with the players and staff and his belief that head coach Frank Martin's tough-love approach would get the most out of him. Upshaw intended to honor that letter of intent until a teammate at an all-star game approached him in late March 2012 and broke the news to him that Martin had just left Kansas State for South Carolina.

"It was heartbreaking," Sherman said. "We had taken our time to look for a perfect fit for Rob, and Kansas State was everything we were looking for. We were ready to move to Kansas. We were ready. It was frustrating when it happened because we were going to Kansas State because of Frank Martin. Once he left, we had to open the recruitment back up."

Robert Upshaw (Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)
Robert Upshaw (Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

With the spring signing period only weeks away, Upshaw didn't have much time to make a decision. He didn't want to go to Kansas State anymore because he'd be playing for a staff that didn't recruit him. He didn't want to follow Martin to South Carolina either. And while some elite programs that originally recruited him were still willing to free up a scholarship to make room for him, he was overwhelmed at the thought of starting his recruiting process all over again.

For that reason, Upshaw chose the school that felt most comfortable to him. He lived minutes from Fresno State's campus, he knew most of his future teammates and Terry had recruited him since his freshman year of high school when Terry was an assistant coach under Rick Barnes at Texas.

"Toward the end, Rob was just so frustrated with the recruiting process that he said he was going to give Fresno State a try," Sherman said. "I didn't want him to stay in Fresno, but against my wishes, that's what he did. It just didn't turn out to be a good fit for him."

The risk for celebrated basketball prospects who choose to play for their hometown college is that the spotlight shines brighter and the expectations are more burdensome. Success brings fame and adulation; failure ensures ignominy and criticism.

There are a handful of reasons why the most prized recruit of Terry's tenure experienced more scorn than praise as a Fresno State freshman.

Upshaw battled knee problems leading up to the start of the season that detracted from his explosiveness and conditioning. He also often gave an uneven effort in practices and games. And he got himself in trouble often enough away from basketball that Terry was compelled to suspend him twice for a total of four games late in the season before dismissing him the following summer.

Neither Upshaw nor anyone close to him chose to offer specifics when asked exactly what led to his dismissal, but their answers were still revealing. They describe Upshaw as a goodhearted but immature kid who made the type of foolhardy decisions college freshmen sometimes make when they're living on their own for the first time.

"I made some bad choices," Upshaw said. "What happened is done and I can't change that, but I learned from it. I'm not doing it now. I'm definitely not doing it now. I'm in a better stage of my life. Basically, I just had to grow up."

The first step in Upshaw's maturation process was spending part of the summer after his freshman year at John Lucas' Houston-based treatment program.

Lucas, a former NBA star whose career was nearly derailed by substance abuse, has gained national acclaim for training basketball players and for helping rehabilitate athletes whose lives have careened off track. The tough love approach Lucas favors was exactly what Upshaw needed to recalibrate his mindset for the comeback ahead.

"John Lucas was so good for Rob," said Upshaw's former AAU coach Clayton Williams. "That's when he started to make changes and make strides. He came back a different person."

One of Upshaw's first priorities after returning home was to find a school willing to offer him a second chance. Washington emerged as one of a handful of suitors once its staff did enough research to properly weigh the risks.

Assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger visited with Upshaw and the big man's family, friends and former coaches in hopes of assessing what went wrong at Fresno State and whether the off-court issues were likely to resurface. Otzelberger emerged from those conversations confident Upshaw was ready to make the necessary changes in his life and convinced the 7-footer could fill a need for a Washington program that lacked a shot blocking center on its roster.

"We certainly did a lot of digging to find out where he was at mentally," Otzelberger said. "From everything that Rob was saying to us, we felt like he wanted to turn his life around and he seemed sincere in those overtures. We knew his ability level and we knew the challenges of finding a legitimate rim protector. Between what Rob was saying to us and the tremendous upside that he has, it made him a risk we were willing to embrace."

Even though transfer-friendly Oregon and prestigious UCLA were among the other schools that expressed interest in Upshaw, Washington was a fairly easy choice.

Playing time didn't figure to be an issue with top big man Perris Blackwell graduating after the 2013-14 season. Upshaw also fancied the idea of playing for Washington's Lorenzo Romar, a head coach with a reputation for preparing his players for life outside basketball by serving as a father figure and hands-on mentor.

When Upshaw arrived at Washington at the start of the 2013-14 school year, Romar immediately set up some stipulations for what the 7-footer had to do earn his trust. Only if Upshaw lived up to Romar's expectations on and off the floor would he have the chance to play for the Huskies when he became eligible the following season.

"More than anything, we needed to see consistency on a daily basis," Otzelberger said. "We made sure he was attending class, doing well in school and addressing any issues he had away from the floor. We encouraged him to tackle those head-on and to get appropriate help and attend counseling or meetings if needed. And from a basketball standpoint, we wanted to see that daily commitment. He hadn't always been someone who had taken care of business on the court, off the court and in the classroom, so that's what we wanted to see."

Though Upshaw endeared himself to everyone at Washington with his warm, friendly personality, his transformation wasn't instantaneous. Romar even prohibited Upshaw from attending practice or sitting on the bench during games for the second half of last season to prove he wouldn't hesitate to cut ties with the 7 footer if necessary.

There were times Upshaw wasn't sure he'd ever have the chance to play for Washington, but he gradually won over the coaching staff by attending class, persevering through extra workouts and getting into the best shape of his life. Romar reinstated Upshaw to the team this summer, shaking his hand and congratulating him the progress he had made in his first calendar year at Washington.

"Coach Romar could have given up on me a long time ago but he hasn't," Upshaw said. "He has been like a second father to me. He wanted me to change my life and he wanted me to get myself together, so he had to give me a couple consequences in order to do that. It has really helped me. Look where I'm at now."

Indeed how far Upshaw has come in the past 18 months is pretty remarkable.

The person whose self-destructive choices nearly cost him his basketball career is now back on an upward trajectory. The player once dismissed from a losing program is now an unbeaten team's breakout star. The guy once derided as a bust is now one of the most feared shot blockers in the nation.

Earlier this month, Brad Roznovsky, an assistant coach at San Joaquin Memorial when Upshaw was there, visited his former player in Seattle for two days. He returned home from Seattle extremely encouraged by Upshaw's maturation on and off the court.

"I think he has really grown up," Roznovsky said. "There are a lot of people in the Fresno area who still come up to me and make jokes about Rob, but he is proving everyone wrong right now. From where he is now to where he was a year and a half ago, it's night and day."

Video of Robert Upshaw via NZAUTV Basketball:

- - - - - - -

Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

Follow @JeffEisenberg

What to Read Next