ONTARIO — He spoke in an excited tone, Robert Upshaw experiencing the initial wave of euphoria surrounding his first NBA exhibition appearance. The Lakers’ reserve center just posted six points on three-of-four shooting, three rebounds, two blocks, one assist and one turnover in 25 minutes in the team’s 105-97 preseason loss to the Toronto Raptors on Thursday at Citizens Business Bank Arena. That left Upshaw appearing on cloud nine as he sat by his locker.
“It was really good,” Upshaw said. “I finally got to get my feet wet, go out there and play some good basketball and just keep up the energy.”
Outside of the locker room, Lakers coach Byron Scott spoke in a more solemn tone about Upshaw’s performance.
“He was okay,” Scott said. “He made a ton of mistakes on both ends of the floor. That’s probably to be expected in his first game.”
Upshaw did not play in the Lakers’ first two preseason games. But Scott had stressed “it’s not something he’s not doing.” Instead, Scott referenced the Lakers’ 19-player training camp-roster and his desire to spread out playing time for his reserves through a chunk of games so each could showcase themselves with significant minutes. Yet, the Lakers have maintained a wait-and-see approach with Upshaw for a few specific reasons.
Both Fresno State (2012-13) and the University of Washington (2014-15) dismissed Upshaw amid unspecified violations of team rules. Suddenly, a projected first-round pick went undrafted. Still, the Lakers have become intrigued with the 7-foot-2, 264-pound Upshaw after he averaged 10.9 points, a team-leading 8.2 rebounds and set the Huskies’ season shot-blocking record (85). The Lakers signed him to the summer league roster before eventually agreeing to a multi-year contract that is mostly non-guaranteed.
“We feel comfortable after looking into and talking to people associated with both programs, we feel we know what the issues are,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said before training camp started. “It clearly comes down to what he can show us in training camp. It’s all up to him. But he’s young and does have gifts a lot of players don’t have. Whether or not we can develop that or help him develop, that remains to be seen.”
Upshaw went through some more hiccups in Summer League. He averaged only 1.4 points and 2.2 rebounds in 11.5 minutes a game with the Lakers’ summer league team in Las Vegas and admittedly remained out of shape. Since then, Upshaw said he has lost 25 pounds and improved his diet.
“I was really heavy. It was kind of frustrating,” Upshaw said. “I feel like my summer league could’ve been a lot more than what it was.”
Upshaw made some amends of that on against Toronto on Thursday.
He was chosen over backup reserves Robert Sacre and Tarik Black, both of whom are also competing for minutes at the backup center spot behind Roy Hibbert. Upshaw quickly converted on a dunk shortly after entering the game midway through the first quarter. He also made a 16-foot fadeaway jumper.
“That’s something we didn’t see in summer league,” Scott said of Upshaw. “In summer league, he was much heavier than he is right now. He’s in much better condition right now. He’s much lighter getting up and down the floor. He’s getting off his feet much better. We’re able to see some of the things we kept hearing about.”
But Upshaw still admitted he needs to “clean some things up” including his timing, offensive rebounding and screen setting. Upshaw also committed a turnover, was called for goaltending, missed a dunk and clanked two foul shots.
“I don’t see myself as a right away player,” Upshaw said. “I’m still transitioning myself with the college game and off-the-court issues. Me being on the bench and being an energy guy and being up every possession and being the first one out on the court, that’s what is going to help us win games.”
That is also what is going to help Upshaw ensure a roster spot with the Lakers.
“He has great size, God-given gifts and I’ve gotten to know him in the last three months,” Kupchak said of Upshaw. “He’s very young, but we feel he’s worth the gamble.”