With 0.2 seconds remaining in a tie game, the idea was to create movement – to attack before the ball was inbounded.
“You need to have somebody that they’re going to chase,” said 76ers coach Brett Brown, who diagrammed the winning play. “Who are they going to chase, and who is going to have the length to go up and catch it?”
The answer to both questions was Robert Covington, the 6-9 small forward, which was surprising for all kinds of reasons. It was not so long ago that Covington had to be talked into believing he could reach the NBA, never mind that he could win a game.
After losing 223 times over these last four seasons, you would think that the player they’d be counting on – to turn a game they normally would lose into an inspiring we-can-do-this win – would be one of the half-dozen lottery picks the Sixers have acquired amid their long excruciating experiment in rebuilding. Logically, then, the most likely candidate to score the winning basket would have been 7-foot Joel Embiid, their former No. 3 pick and probable Kia Rookie of the Year. Instead, surprisingly, Brown arranged for Embiid to screen off the chasing defender – Andrew Wiggins, a former No. 1 pick himself – which set Covington free to curl around the right side and meet the long entry pass awkwardly in mid-air, looking up all the while like a child releasing a balloon. It kissed softly off the glass at the buzzer of Philadelphia’s 93-91 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“I don’t think anyone deserves it more than Robert,” said teammate T.J. McConnell. “When I saw that last-second shot fall, I was really happy for him.”
The problem of developing so many high picks is that the endgame can appear too far down the road. The likes of Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Nik Stauskas, injured No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and Dario Saric (who completed that difficult inbound pass to Covington) won’t be peaking for several years. And so an undrafted talent like Covington becomes important in the meantime, because he can’t afford the luxury of aiming for some distant future. For him there will be no tomorrow unless he succeeds today.
“The way that me and Robert look at it is we weren’t drafted at all,” said McConnell, Philadelphia’s 24-year old point guard. “And we can be replaced. So we fight every day as hard as we can for our job like it’s our life, and that is our mindset.”
At 26, Covington’s career has been nothing like that straightforward winning play of Jan. 3. Only two colleges offered him a scholarship coming out of Proviso West High School in Chicago, and three weeks before graduation he chose Tennessee State over Sacramento State.
“My mom was telling me, ‘If you don’t pick a school, I’m going to pick it for you,' " he said. His idea was to graduate – which he would do, on time – in pursuit of a career in athletic training or some other support role that would keep him around high school or college sports. But his coaches in Nashville had bigger ideas.
“The coaching staff really pushed me and believed in me,” Covington said. “They was like, ‘If you stay at it, if you stay on the path that you’re going, you really can make a push because you got a gift that not too many people have.” They saw that he would become a 3-point shooter with the length to defend multiple positions. “They said, ‘It’s just a matter of if you commit to it.”
By his breakout junior season, he was nodding along with his coaches, and he kept believing even after a partially-torn meniscus limited his final year and doomed him in the 2013 Draft.
He is emerging to be a good leader. He has been with me enough where he can share a story. He can say, ‘We don’t do it like that here. That’s not what we do.’ The reason he is becoming a more respected voice is because he guards.
Covington spent his rookie year mainly with the Houston Rockets’ NBA D-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, who were conducting an experiment of their own in reckless fast-paced scoring.
“I got him from that Viper program that would run up and down and just jack threes,” said Brown, whose 76ers signed Covington in 2014-15, after he had been waived by the Rockets. “I told him: ‘You’re not just that. And that ain’t how we’re playing.’ I had to challenge him defensively, and explain how important it is to become a two-way player.
“He has improved as much as anybody I’ve coached from a mindset perspective. I used to joke and say to him, ‘What am I going to give you -- a stuffed animal just because you can make that 3-point shot in two seconds? Are you serious? You are not at the carnival or the fair.’ It’s a terrible shot to just come down and jack up garbage. That’s not how the sport is played. And I am a huge fan of the 3 -- it’s the way we want to play too, to a point. But you’ve got to guard. So he had no idea where to drive his car. No idea.”
There was a one-hand-washes-the-other ideal built into their relationship. Brown was going to help transform Covington into a 3-and-D player with a long-term NBA future, and Covington in return was going to express the values that Brown was breeding into the Sixers’ program, in spite of their horrific record.
“He is emerging to be a good leader,” Brown said. “He has been with me enough where he can share a story. He can say, ‘We don’t do it like that here. That’s not what we do.’ The reason he is becoming a more respected voice is because he guards.”
Covington ranks No. 3 among small forwards in real plus-minus defensively (2.68); overall, only Draymond Green is averaging more deflections than Covington’s 4.1 per game this season.
“He can become an elite defender,” Brown went on. “He is a versatile, multi-purpose defensive player. And he’s been able to talk to the team because they respect his ability to play defense.”
Covington remembers going into the fourth quarter of a playoff game one decade ago against St. Joseph High School.
“I didn’t know anything,” he said. “I honestly didn’t think I would play.” But a couple of teammates had fouled out, and Covington found himself trying to stay in front of Evan Turner, a senior headed to Ohio State, where three years later he would become national player of the year and the No. 2 pick in the 2010 Draft.
The job description hasn’t changed much for Covington over the years. “Carmelo (Anthony), LeBron (James), Kyrie (Irving), (Kevin) Durant, Steph (Curry) – basically any big-name player you can imagine, I’ve guarded,” Covington said. The difference is that he believes in what he’s doing now.
“To his credit,” Brown said loudly for his player to hear, as Covington happened by and slapped his coach’s hand, “he actually is a two-way player now. Yes, he is.”
Covington’s scoring average has dropped to 10.3 points because of a slump in his 3-point shooting to a career-low 29.5 percent (he averaged 36.3 percent over three previous seasons). On the night of his game-winning tip-in, he had missed 8 of 9 from the arc and his own fans had been booing him.
“I hear everything,” he said, and the negativity was almost familiar as he turned it into a roar.
That night he celebrated with family and friends over a late dinner at a Philadelphia bowling alley. Was he recognized?
“Not really,” Covington said without complaining. “Even though the highlights was playing throughout the bowling alley, people didn’t bother us.” He thought about it some more. “It was probably because I had a hat on,” he said.
That good night has given way to several more. Last week Philadelphia won another tight game at the buzzer, 98-97 over the visiting Knicks, and this time the final shot came from McConnell, the equally anonymous point guard. The two undrafted Sixers had helped extend a streak of six wins in eight games. With thanks to such unlikely investments, the Philadelphia experiment is beginning to turn the corner.
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