Robert Covington is one of the great feel-good stories in the NBA and the glowing example of the other side of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ “process” embraced by Sam Heinke. We all know about Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz and how tanking resulted in those high-quality picks. But there is another aspect to tanking that doesn’t get the same attention.
That involves filling a roster with castoffs and overlooked players who never got the billing coming out of college, but who are legitimate NBA prospects. It’s the search for the diamonds in the rough. As much as Simmons and Embiid are the shining examples of what teams can do with high picks, Covington exemplifies what teams can do with a little patience and player development.
Covington was so popular when he came out for the draft that he almost got drafted. Well, not really.
He didn’t get drafted. He did manage to get his way onto the Houston Rockets’ Summer League team. He did parlay that into a contract, but he spent most of his time in the D-League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The following year, he played with the Rockets’ Summer League team again, but the Philadelphia 76ers were the ones that gave him a chance.
He averaged 13.5 points and 4.5 boards while shooting 37.4 percent from deep. He also started to show some promise on the defensive end of the court with a plus 0.2 defensive plus-minus–not great but not bad at all for a guy in his second season. Over the next two seasons, his offensive production stayed roughly the same, but he started emerging as an elite defender. Last year, his plus-4.32 DRPM led small forwards, per ESPN.com. He also finished fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
While RPM data isn’t out yet on this season, the fact that the 76ers’ defense is 7.6 points better when he’s on the court this year suggests that his defense is at least as good as year. Opponents shoot 7.0 percent worse when he’s the closest defender within six feet of the rim, according to NBA.com. He’s getting the third-most deflections per game (3.8) while averaging 1.5 steals and 0.9 blocks. Altogether that’s 6.2 shots, passes and dribbles he’s getting his hand on.
At worst, he’s maintained his status as an elite defender. More likely, he has improved upon it.
But where he’s stepped up this year is on the offensive end, where — suddenly equipped with an all-world passer like Ben Simmons — his 3-point shooting is going through the roof.
He’s shooting 50 percent on 7.5 attempts per game, which is laugh-out-loud insane. That’s 41 makes on 82 shots in only 11 games. The next fastest anyone has gotten to 40 makes while shooting 50 percent from 3 was Wesley Matthews in 2013-14, and it took him 15 games to get there.
What’s even more remarkable is that 38 of Covington’s 3s are above the break. The only player averaging more catch-and-shoot points per game than his 10.6 is Klay Thompson at 12.6, and Covington’s 71.3 effective field goal percentage on catch-and shoots is second among anyone attempting five shots per game.
He is also third in spot-up points at 6.8 per game, while resting snugly in the 84.2 percentile.
He is arguably the best defensive wing in the NBA not named Kawhi Leonard, and he’s putting up catch-and-shoot numbers from deep that are second only to Thompson.
Is it any wonder when he’s working this kind of chemistry with Simmons?
By the time the defense noticed there was a pass, the ball was in the air. That’s art.
If we’re defining a 3-and-D wing more narrowly (players for whom that’s what they do, not part of what they do — Thompson and Leonard are more than 3-and-D wings), you can make a solid argument that RoCo isn’t just the best in the league–you can argue that among them, he’s the best at both facets.
That’s exactly what the other part of the “process” was about: finding and developing role players who can shine alongside those stars teams draft. In that regard, Covington is just as much a part of the success of the 76ers’ strategy as Simmons and Embiid. That’s saying something.