LAS VEGAS – As Robert Covington took in Tuesday’s narrow MGM Resorts NBA Summer League loss to the Boston Celtics from a baseline seat at Thomas & Mack Center, it was hard not to imagine the 76ers’ wingman having somewhat of a those-were-the-days type of experience. After all, just a few short years ago, the Tennessee State product himself was in a position similar to many of the undrafted pro hopefuls who, each July, pine for summer league reps in an attempt to get noticed by one of the league’s 30 clubs.
These days, Covington, who was one of more than a half dozen veteran players to show up and support the Sixers during their week-long stay in Las Vegas, is anything but an obscure prospect. Having been given his first professional break by the Houston Rockets in 2013, he has since forced his way into a full-time role with the Sixers the past three seasons, evolving into one of the top 3-and-D wingmen in the NBA.
A summer league game like the one Covington attended Tuesday put the 26-year old’s progress in perspective.
“It’s all about the journey,” Covington said during a podcast interview that night.
“A lot of kids have to experience this just because they have to see the transition from college to NBA, overseas to NBA – it’s a different type of game. This is a first opportunity for guys to really put themselves in the right position to see who can translate in a good way.”
For his part, Covington certainly has.
Since latching on with the Sixers in November of 2014, Covington, in 204 career outings with the team, has averaged 13.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.6 steals in 29.3 minutes per game. He’s nailed at least 137 3-pointers each of the previous three years, is now one of just six players in NBA history to go consecutive seasons with at least 12.5 points, 6.0 boards, 1.5 steals, and a minimum of 130 triples, as he did in 2015-2016, and again in 2016-2017.
From a defensive standpoint, last year might have been Covington’s strongest showing yet. He ranked fourth among all players in steals per game (1.9), first in deflections created per game (by a wide margin, with 4.2), and, according to ESPN, generated the highest real defensive plus-minus rating (4.32) of any small forward.
Covington’s contributions – especially when accounting for the fact that he was required to contend with premiere volume scorers on a game-in, game-out basis – didn’t go unnoticed. He placed fourth in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting.
“It was amazing, just to be in that category with those types of guys,” said Covington, who was beat out by winner Draymond Green, and runners-up Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard.
Covington did, however, finish in front of the likes of LeBron James, Hassan Whiteside, and LaMarcus Aldridge.
“That’s just a testament to hard work, and everything I’ve been through,” he said. “Coach [Brett Brown] really emphasized a lot about becoming a two-way player. They’ve challenged me, and Coach knows that once he gives me a challenge, I take offense to something like that.”
Covington also credited Lloyd Pierce, the Sixers’ rising fifth-year assistant and lead defensive coach, for pushing him.
“Our whole identity is pace, space, and defense, and Rob’s ability to shoot the three and his ability to defend is very important, just because how we play,” Pierce said recently. “His individual accomplishment of being a high deflections guy, and just being an individual defender – he’s normally guarding the best guy on every team – that’s his growth. We’re trying to use that as much as we can with him.”
“I knew in order for me to really stick around in this league, I’d have to develop that,” Covington said, “and Coach Lloyd has really helped me to get to that point.”
Pierce seemed to be happy that Covington’s earning an increasing amount of respect, specifically in regard to his name surfacing on the Defensive Player of the Year ballot.
“It’s good, it’s empowering,” said Pierce. “It’s a confidence-builder for him, not only to be recognized as a defender, but the numbers back it up. It’s real, it’s legit. He’s going to keep that mentality moving forward, and it’s just going to help our team.”
On the heels of his eighth and final 20-point, 10-rebound effort a year ago, Covington was shut down for the final two weeks of the season due to a right knee injury. While in Las Vegas, he said he felt “great,” and even got a few workouts in during the visit.
As far as his development goals for the upcoming campaign are concerned, Covington plans to focus on being more effective off the ball, aiming to be better at cutting and slashing to the basket. He wants to make himself more available for offensive rebounds, too.
Defensively, the mission is to “just keep being a pest,” said Covington, who, thanks to strength training and a lot of grubbing, estimates he now weighs 229 pounds. For comparison’s sake, he was officially listed at 204 pounds heading into his senior season in college.
When Covington and the Sixers regroup for training camp in the fall, there will certainly be some noteworthy new faces on the roster. As the team’s longest-tenured player, he’s excited about the pieces that have been added to the mix – from No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, to free agents Amir Johnson and JJ Redick.
“We got so much talent, guys who are hungry to be on the court,” Covington said. “We’re looking forward to practice. Once everybody’s on the court together, man, all that different type of personalities and everything, it’s just going to make us push each other that much more harder.”
A summer league gym, one of the original breeding sites for Covington’s eventual success, felt like an appropriate place to hear him wax about how far he’s come, and his belief in the direction the Sixers are headed.
“We know what we’re capable of,” he said, “and we want to bring the best out of each other.”