Philadelphia 76ers' Robert Covington: From D-League to Top 55 NBA Player

On Friday, March 31, the Philadelphia 76ers announced the official end to Robert Covington’s season due to a knee injury. According to ESPN, surgery is an option, but Covington is going to research other treatments options before making a decision.

I figured now would be as good as time as any to look back at Covington’s career and how he transformed himself from an undrafted free agent to a legitimate NBA player and potential sixth man on the next great 76ers squad. (That reality is not that far off folks; if they can stay healthy plus the influx of talent this offseason, then the 76ers can and will win games).

An NBA Dream

Covington was not highly recruited during high school, so he went to play college ball at Tennessee State University because they offered him a scholarship.

In his four years in college, Covington played well but again was not a big next-level prospect. His numbers became more impressive his senior year. Covington averaged 17.0 points with 8.0 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. He was also a 42.2 percent shooter from distance, but the NBA interest just never materialized. He went on to be undrafted in the 2013 NBA Draft.

Covington caught on the Rockets but mostly as a D-League player that first season. He lit up the D-League, playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and averaging 23.2 points, 3.2 3-pointers made, 9.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game in 34.1 minutes a night; however, it led to only a total of 34 minutes (http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/c/covinro01.html) played for the Houston Rockets that season.

The 76ers Come Calling

It was a great season for Covington in the D-League, but it did not lead to NBA minutes until Philadelphia came calling the next season. On November 15, 2014, the Philadelphia 76ers signed Covington to a contract. It is important to remember, Philadelphia was entering year two of their rebuild at that time. They were coming off a 19 win season, but the 76ers weren’t really interested in being a winning team, just in amassing as much talent as possible

That is what made Covington such a great move; there was no risk. Covington had played well in every opportunity he was given, but he had never received an NBA opportunity. If he stunk, the 76ers could just move on with the minimal cost of his guaranteed salary and then looked for another player to fill his roster spot. Without that mentality, Covington may have never received a chance to play in the NBA.

First Two Years in Philly

Philly fans will know Covington’s first two years in a 76ers uniform were difficult. Between the injuries, lack of talent and just disregard for winning games, the team grew tough to watch. You could see glimpses of Covington’s potential, though.

Covington profiled as a 3 and D wing. A stopper with the ability to efficiently nail a 3-point shot. Covington produced much of that package under the radar during that time. He nailed 2.4 3-pointers per game on 37.4 percent in year 1 and 2.5 3-pointers a game on 35.3 percent in year 2. The average of 1.5 steals per game looked nice and he earned 2.3 and 2.1 win shares in those two years.

Covington did not get much love, partly because he did not have the name or the reputation. I think the rest of it boiled down to the 76ers being terrible   intentionally, mind you — and some of their high draft picks being injured or stashed in a foreign land. That led to a lack of media attention on the players, and there were only really two things being talked about: whether “The Process” would work and when would the 76ers start trying to win games. Things finally changed this season.

Improvements This Season

The 76ers enter this season as a buzzy team. Joel Embiid was finally going to be healthy and playing. Ben Simmons, the 2016 number-one overall draft pick, was going to be a point forward. Dario Saric was finally in the lineup after a few years playing overseas. Still, nobody was talking about Covington.

Let us start off with a short highlight video to give you a glimpse at some of the things Robert Covington preformed on the court this season.

Robert Covington improved his game during the offseason, and his numbers followed suit this year. He upped his steals to 1.9 per game and his blocks to 1.0 per game. Additionally, Covington shot a career high free throw percentage and set a new career high in rebounds per game.

Covington's defense improved dramatically, as well. He earned 3.3 defensive win shares this season, which ranked 19th in the NBA according to Basketball-Reference. Covington’s defensive improvements and the 6ers being a buzzy team gained him some notoriety, but really people just found out what 6ers fans already knew   Robert Covington is a good NBA player whether he gets the recognition or not.

Even 76ers fans might underrate Covington’s contributions, though. If you look at the advanced metric value over replacement player (VORP) on Basketball-Reference, Covington rates as the 53rd best player in the NBA. He ranks ahead of players such as DeMar DeRozan (an All-Star this year), Brook Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge and Andre Drummond just to name a few.

Every single year Covington has come back a better player, and it is about time he starts getting some recognition in the NBA.

Covington Better Next Year?

Covington played a big role on this 76ers squad, earning 31.6 minutes a game (a career high), but he could still be even better next season.

He shot a career-worst 3-point percentage at 33.3 percent. He is a career 35.4 percent 3-point shooter. By improving this aspect of his game  even just up to the point where he normalized out to his career average  Covington could also improve his points, 3-pointers made and field goal percentage.

Also, Covington had career worst per 36 numbers in assists, points and 3-pointers made.

That goes without mentioning his poor field goal percentage. His poor percentage coupled, with the fact that he is not a volume scorer, plays a part in Covington being underrated. He shot a career-best 39.9 percent from the field this season. If he can improve that to just over 40 percent, it could go a long way in improving his stats and perception.

Covington’s Future

The still underrated Covington turns 27 years old in December, so what does the future hold for him?

Well, given that the knee injury is fixed and leaves little to no long-term effects (never a given with knee injuries, but a possibility), I think Covington will once again improve during this offseason. If he works on his 3-point stroke, he can return to a 35-36 percent distance shooter. By continuing to play great defense, he will truly be one of the NBA’s best 3 and D wings for the next few seasons.

I think Covington will probably move to a sixth man role in Philadelphia next year. The return of Simmons plus the speculative addition of a point guard in the draft gives the 6ers a much better team. This moves Covington to the bench and puts him in contention for the sixth man of the year award. I believe he will see 28-30 minutes a game and becomes a stopper late in games on some of the NBA’s best talents.

Summary

Covington is used to being under the radar. Few colleges offered him a scholarship, no NBA team wanted to draft him and he had to dominate the D-League to even get a shot in the NBA, and yet here he is.

Nobody talks about Covington. He is probably considered the fifth or sixth best player on his own team by some, and the casual NBA fan has probably never even heard of Robert Covington. Yet, he was the 53rd best player in the NBA this season and still has room to grow. Continue to underrate him if you wish, but Covington is here to stay.


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