Barring serious injury or other misfortune, Robert Upshaw will finish the 2014-15 basketball season as the most prolific shot-blocker in Washington Huskies single-season history.
And if the 7-foot, third-year sophomore maintains his current pace, the existing record holders will be distant runners-up.
Upshaw is already swatting shots at a historic pace by UW standards, tallying 33 blocks in the Huskies’ first seven games. That’s an average of 4.7 per game, and includes a game in which Upshaw had no blocks after fouling out after only eight minutes.
His block totals in UW’s other six games, in order: seven, seven, eight, five, two, four.
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So with 23 regular-season games left to play — many of those against better competition, granted — it seems a foregone conclusion that Upshaw, who transferred from Fresno State, will shatter the UW single-season record of 67, held by Chris Welp (1985-86) and David Dixon (2001-02).
And if you really want to get ahead of yourself, the Pac-12 single-season blocks record is 133, set just last season by former Arizona State center Jordan Bachynski (but you might want to revisit that number at, say, the season’s halfway point).
Despite his record pace, Upshaw expresses dissatisfaction with his early accomplishments.
“I expected to be a lot better,” he said last week before UW’s 49-36 stomping of then 13th-ranked San Diego State. “I feel like I’ve had a little drop-off between the Pacific game and the UTEP game, kind of getting out of position. Just like Coach (Lorenzo) Romar said, it’s just about being in the right spot, being in the right places, and I think I’ve made some mistakes. But I feel like I can get better with them and learn from them, and be a lot better than I am now.”
That’s a frightening thought for future Huskies opponents. Washington is newly-ranked — 17th in both major polls — and has embraced a team-wide defensive mentality that was absent pretty much all of last season.
But there is no player more important to that cause than Upshaw, who is just the third 7-footer to play for Romar at Washington and patrols the paint with a shot-thwarting presence not seen on Montlake since ... well, maybe ever. Or at least not since blocked shots became an official statistic in 1976-77.
“Last year, we were so small, you get near the rim, we wouldn’t make you pay for it,” Romar said. “This year, we make you pay for it.”
Brad Jackson, the third-year assistant coach who works with the Huskies’ big men, recalls his playing days at Washington State in the early 1970s, and a pair of opponents who blocked shots with similar or greater frequency than Upshaw.
Their names: Bill Walton of UCLA, against whom Jackson played, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), whose UCLA career preceded Jackson’s time at WSU.
“That is, for me, the closest comparison,” Jackson said before a UW practice last week. “Playing against Walton, you get a sense of that. But I think it’s a real gift.”
Coaches rave about Upshaw’s timing. Romar has said repeatedly since practices started that Upshaw can wait until the ball leaves a shooter’s hand to begin his block attempt — though he’s been baited into silly fouls by pump fakes a few times — and Jackson praises his ability to obtain possession of the ball instead of swatting shots into the seats.
Upshaw’s 7-foot-5½ inch wingspan doesn’t hurt. He uses those long arms to block shots around the rim and scare perimeter shooters into hurried attempts.
Against San Diego State, Upshaw swatted an outside shot attempt into the backcourt, allowing point guard Nigel Williams-Goss to collect the miss and head the other way for an easy dunk.
“It’s all about timing,” Upshaw said. “Because I can go block a shot, but if you’ve got guys like Nigel and Drew (Andrew Andrews) coming down the middle, you know they’re creative, you know they’re going to get to the basket and have a high floater. And it’s all about timing. So I can get that ball out of Nigel’s hand right when it leaves his hand, or I can run and jump 13 feet and go get it.”
He’s blocked Williams-Goss’ famed floater?
“I’ve blocked everybody on this team,” Upshaw said.
The more Upshaw can play — he’s averaging just 17.7 minutes per game off the bench — the more confident the rest of the Huskies’ defense will be around him, pressuring the ball or gambling for a steal with the knowledge that Upshaw can clean up after them at the rim.
That was the impact of his presence at San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, California, where Upshaw played his senior season after transferring two years prior from Edison High.
Brad Roznovsky is the coach at San Joaquin these days, and was an assistant during Upshaw’s time there.
“He allowed us to trap a little bit,” said Roznovsky, who visited Upshaw in Seattle and attended the San Diego State game. “He allowed us to be very aggressive in man (defense), whereas if we got beat ... we didn’t want to teach to get beat, but the kids knew they could be very aggressive in our man principles because they knew the rim was protected by Robert.”
For the Huskies, “It makes it a lot easier to pressure when you have a safety net back there,” Williams-Goss said.
Upshaw originally committed to Kansas State out of San Joaquin, but chose instead to sign with hometown Fresno State.
He lasted one season there before being dismissed for repeated rules violations. Eventually, he chose to transfer to Washington, where fellow San Joaquin alum Quincy Pondexter thrived from 2006-10.
While Upshaw sat out the 2013-14 season due to transfer rules, his status for this season remained in doubt. Upshaw didn’t practice with the team for the final several weeks of last season and didn’t sit on the bench during games. Romar vaguely implied that off-court problems were the reason for Upshaw’s distance from the program, but wouldn’t say much more.
Maturity, Upshaw said, was the issue, though specifics remain unknown.
“The University of Washington is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” he said earlier this season. “The help that I’ve received from the university has been more than helpful. They’ve helped me mature. They’ve helped me academically make it so that I can be successful if basketball doesn’t pan out.”
His playing time the rest of the season will depend partially upon his conditioning — Upshaw estimates that he’s at an “eight out of 10” in that department now — and his ability to focus consistently in practice. His offensive game needs polish — not surprising for a guy who sat out as long as he did — though he dunks ferociously and flashed an effective hook shot on Sunday night. And despite his fairly limited minutes so far, he’s still averaging 8.9 points and 5.7 rebounds.
Roznovsky enjoyed his visit with Upshaw and Romar this past weekend. He said Romar told him Upshaw has come a long way since he arrived at UW, but that he still has room to grow.
Specifically, Roznovsky said: “Maturity, and realizing that he’s going to have to continue to work in the classroom and on the court to get better. But I think he’s on the (right) track now. I really do. I sensed over the weekend that he grew up a little bit, I think, in the last year or so.”
And, perhaps, into the best shot-blocker Washington has ever had.