When the team signed Robert Covington to a contract on November 15th of last year, most Sixers fans had never heard of him. Prior to signing that deal, Covington had only played 7 games in the NBA with the Houston Rockets. The Rockets were high on Covington, but not high enough to continue to give him an NBA roster spot while he developed with their D-League affiliate so they released him just before the start of the 2014 season. A few weeks later, the Sixers signed him to a most non-guaranteed contract in a move that drew little fanfare. Covington was a good scorer and great outside shooter in the D-League for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, but the transition to the NBA is a tough one for even the best D-League players. It seemed like a solid move for the Sixers to attempt to add some more shooting, but the efficacy of the move has exceeded the expectations of even the greatest optimists.
Covington was a key player for the Sixers last year. He appeared in 70 games for the team including 49 starts. The second year forward was the team’s lone consistent three point threat. Covington was 10th in the entire league in makes from distance while shooting 37 percent from behind the line. The spacing that Covington provided was crucial for the team last season. The Sixers were 6.5 points better on offense per 100 possession with Covington on the court. He also had an even net rating which is pretty remarkable for a player on a team that just won 18 games and had the worst offense in the league. The Sixers certainly struggled to create space for their guards and Noel even with Covington so I hate to imagine the disaster that they would have been without him.
However, the promise with Covington does not lie solely in last year’s production. It lies in his future as a member of the team. Covington certainly has the ability to be one of the league’s elite shooting specialists. He has very good size for a wing player at 6’9” and a beautiful stroke. Convington’s size combined with a shooting form that is both quick and compact allows him to shoot efficiently even when heavily guarded. Covington shot really well from three last year despite the fact that only 25% of his threes were deemed “open” by synergy stats. That percentage is abysmally low when compared to other players in the league who fill roles similar to Covington. Imagine what kind of percentage Covington could shoot if he had a season where he was getting somewhere near 40 percent of his threes with ample shooting space as opposed to just 25 percent.
This may seem like a far off dream as opposed to a near possibility, but there is some hope that the Sixers can help Covington out this year more than last. First of all, the team should hopefully have more shooters around Robert. The team added Nik Stauskas via trade in the offseason. The team could also possibly expect some shooting improvement from players that were on the roster last year like Jerami Grant and Jakarr Sampson who have spent the offseason working on their shots. Still, the shooter who may help Covington the most is Hollis Thompson. Thompson had a brutal start to the year last season after reworking his shooting stroke and battling an illness that caused him to miss games and lose some weight. However, in the second half of the season, Thompson really came on. His new release was much faster and he was able to slowly get back into game shape. After the all-star break, Thompson shot nearly 46 percent from distance. That kind of shooting could really help to take some defensive attention away from Covington. The second reason Covington may be able to get more open threes this year comes with the addition of Jahlil Okafor. Okafor may just be a rookie, but he is already a polished post player. Jahlil may even be able to draw double teams this year, and if not, he will certainly require some extra defensive attention that could free up some shooters on the Sixers. The best part is that Okafor is a wildly talented and willing passer who will be able to hit these spot up shooters like Covington with relative ease.
Still, despite the fact that Covington will theoretically have more help next year and in the future, the rest of his development falls mostly on his own shoulders. He needs to continue to work hard to improve all aspects of his game, not just his shooting. Robert needs to become a better defender. He has the height and length (7’2” wingspan) to bother opposing players despite not being the most fleet of foot. Covington also needs to work to become a smarter defender which should come with time and effort. Being a defensive stopper is far from necessary for a long range specialist like Covington, but it is important that he becomes a better team defender so he does not kill the Sixers on that end of the court. Covington could also work to improve his handle and his ability to shoot coming off of screens so that the Sixers can use him more efficiently. If he improves his ballhanding ability, Covington will be better able to attack aggressive closeouts by defenders, which in turn will give him more space to shoot in the future. Covington will become a more diverse and dynamic offensive player if he can improve working off of screens so that he is not limited as just a threat as a spot up shooter. Covington has shown himself to be a hard worker and good example for most of the year last year except one incident against the Bucks where he was benched by Brett Brown for not giving appropriate defensive intensity. Covington learned his lesson and was a good worker for the remainder of the season so I expect him to put in the necessary work and continue to develop.
Now what does having a player like Covington mean for the Sixers? The Sixers rebuilding plan has always been about acquiring superstar players so why should the fans really care about a limited player like Covington? It matters because every championship team has great role players like Covington. Good teams need guys like Covington to space the floor and act as release valves for their star players. Covington is a low usage but high impact player that can fit on almost any team and in almost any system. Covington is currently on one of the best contracts in the whole league. He is making just over a million dollars per year for the next three years with the last year being a team option. In two years, when the salary cap is set to explode to almost 110 million dollars, Covington will be under contract for about 1/100 of the total of the salary cap. Covington may not be this cheap by the time that the Sixers compete, but his contract certainly gives them the flexibility to spend on other players in the meantime. Covington will be a restricted free agent when his contract is up so the Sixers will have the right to match any offer that another team makes. In Covington, the Sixers have a cheap, controllable asset who seems like he can really play. The team’s roster tends to be a bit of a revolving door, but Covington is the kind of guy who could stick around for a long time and be an important part of the future.