CAMDEN, NJ – If there’s one 76er capable of telling whether there’s something different about this year’s training camp compared to those from the recent past, Robert Covington is probably your guy.
No one on the club’s current roster has appeared in more games (204) in a Sixers uniform than the rising fifth-year forward. His tenure with the team in terms of actual length of time is exceeded only by that of Joel Embiid, who was drafted about five months before Covington signed as a free agent in November of 2014.
So, yes, if there would happen to be changes in the vibes this time of year, Covington could, in all likelihood, point them out. And the other day, he did.
Not only does Covington feel the Sixers’ attention to detail is sharper this fall, he thinks that a greater emphasis is being placed on communication. That means more talking amongst players on the court during practices, and in this regard, the 26-year old has stood out, deliberately.
As there is heightened anticipation for the upcoming season, Covington’s goal has been to get everybody on the same page, especially the team’s youngsters.
“I’ve been here longest, I’ve seen the most,” Covington said Thursday, when asked why he’s been so helpful to some of the greener Sixers. “A lot of my experience is trying to teach them things, that way they can pick up on it easier, rather than get out there in certain situations, maybe get lost, and not know what to do.”
In particular, and fittingly, Covington has been keeping a close eye on the defensive side of the floor, doing his part to ensure the Sixers are staying as buttoned up as possible. During his last four seasons, all of which have been spent in Philadelphia, Covington has evolved into one of the top stoppers in the league. He generated the best real defensive plus-minus rating (4.32) among all small forwards in 2016-2017, doing so while being asked to cover premiere scorers on a game-in, game-out basis.
“It’s to get all the terminology down, our fundamentals, defensive rotations,” Covington said of his efforts to facilitate collective communication among the Sixers. “That’s what we’ve been doing a lot – just to get the break down of everything so guys can get used to it and accustomed to it. That way, once game time situations come, they’ll be a lot easier to them and simple to them.”
Covington’s vocal contributions go beyond just defensive concepts. Sometimes, he simply offers general words of encouragement. Several young Sixers have found him to be particularly proactive in getting them acclimated.
Ben Simmons credited Covington for teaching him about defense, and how to move around effectively on the court.
James Blackmon Jr., a rookie free agent with a prolific 3-point track record, singled out Covington as one of the Sixers’ most supportive veterans.
“For me, on offense,” Blackmon said, “they always tell me to be aggressive, because they know I can score the ball and make plays, whether it’s spotting up being in the right spot, or being aggressive with the ball.”
20-year old swingman Furkan Korkmaz said he speaks with Covington regularly.
“He talks to me, tries to help me. We are talking to each other. Everybody’s talking to each other, forcing each other.”
Interactions like these are welcomed sights to Brett Brown, the coach who a few seasons back saw promising leadership potential in the Chicagoland native.
“Robert Covington,” Brown said Thursday, “feels like this is his program as much as it is anybody’s, and he’s right. I think there is an ownership and responsibility that I see emerging in Robert Covington.”
Prior to landing with the Sixers, Covington broke into the pros via Houston, signing with the organization in July of 2013 after going unchosen in the draft. He played for the Rockets in summer league, then received an invite to Houston’s training camp later that year. The Tennessee Tech product went on to spend most of the ensuing season with Rio Grande of the NBA G League.
Towards the end of the 2013-2014 campaign, though, Covington earned a few call ups to the Rockets, which, that year, had All-Star Dwight Howard and Francisco Garcia on the squad. The two brought Covington under their wing.
At times, the love was tough. Covington remembers essentially being on call for Howard, and having to constantly schlep around the big man’s backpack. Covington estimated the book bag weighed around 60 pounds, and contained four different laptops, plus three iPads.
Nonetheless, the rub-off that Howard and Garcia had on Covington was impactful.
“I learned a lot from them,” said Covington, “just based off being in the league for so long, seeing so much, just listening to them and what their experiences have been like, ways they’ve handled certain things and certain situations on and off the court is what I kind of took from them.
“I even brought that stuff here.”
Providing a strong presence on the court and off has come gradually for Covington, named an SITop100 player for the coming season. He traces the beginning of his growth in this area to the 2015 offseason, when both he and Brown mutually agreed that the timing was right for Covington to assume a larger leadership role. Fast forward to the present, and the mission, while still very much evolving, has in many ways been fulfilled.
“Coach believes in me, teammates believe in me, coaching staff, everything,” Covington said. “It’s been a work in progress.”
With the 2017-2018 slate fast approaching, Covington sounded excited to have extra help on the veteran leadership front. JJ Redick and Amir Johnson signed as free agents this summer. Jerryd Bayless is now healthy and active. Proven pros Kris Humphries and Emeka Okafor are also in camp.
Still, Covington knows that within this seasoned contingent, the extent of his intimate familiarity with the Sixers, and Brown’s coaching style, make him unique.
“We have veteran leadership around, but as far as everything we’ve done here, as a team, I’m one of the longest tenured, and I’m one of the ones that tends to come out here and make sure everything is all on one accord,” said Covington.
A dynamic that’s a little bit different than in the past, but one that Covington seems determined to turn into an advantage.