Game Preview | Covington on Cusp of Closing Strong Season

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Sizing Up the Sixers (27-46):
Entering his third year with the 76ers, the focus for Robert Covington was to further hone his skills as a two-way wing player.

With two weeks remaining in the regular season, it seems fair to write that not only did Covington enthusiastically accept and embrace the mission, but has managed to accomplish it in encouraging fashion.

Seeking proof? Well here’s some evidence, some of which has gone well-documented and tracked these last six months.

Entering the finale of the Sixers’ season-long road trip Tuesday at Brooklyn, Covington, per, boasted an individual defensive rating of 103.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. That figure puts him second among all NBA small forwards who have played a minimum of 60 games this season, while also averaging at least 30 minutes. Only Utah All-Star Gordon Hayward has a better defensive rating (102.3) at the small forward spot.

Furthermore, Covington, based on calculations made by, currently tops his positional peers with a defensive real plus-minus rating of 4.21.

(Defensive real plus-minus is a metric that was created in an attempt to quantify the impact a player has on his team’s defensive success on a per-100 possession basis.)

And Covington doesn’t just lead all small forwards in this statistical category, he does so by a wide margin. As of Tuesday, no other three-man in the league had a defensive real plus-minus rating higher than 2.78. That’s a considerable gap.

Rounding out the rest of Covington’s statistical high marks this season, the 26-year old Tennessee State product is tied for fourth in the NBA with an average of 1.9 steals per game (he’s sixth in total steals, with 125). He paces all players – at any position – with 4.2 deflections per game (his 275 total deflections are good for second-best overall), yet another numerical indicator telling of his defensive prowess, and commitment.

On the other end of the floor, Covington has made his presence felt as well. He averages 12.8 points per game, tied with Dario Saric for top scoring average among active players on the Sixers’ roster. Covington’s 136 3-point field goals lead the club, and, following an up-and-down start to the season, he’s converted 38.1 percent of his outside shots over his last 36 games.

The statistics don’t simply imply that Covington is on his way to becoming an elite 3-and-D swingman. They suggest that, at least for this particular season, he should already be considered a part of that group, which consists of the likes of San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Indiana’s Paul George, Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, and, yes, even Cleveland’s LeBron James.

“Overall, I’ve become a better two-way player,” Covington said over the weekend, when asked to assess his growth this year. “Coach [Brett Brown] has already emphasized from previous years that he wanted me to become a two-way player. Just to see the momentum shift and how much time and effort we built and put into it, it’s been an amazing thing.”

Since Covington signed with the Sixers in November of 2014, shortly after the start of Brown’s second season, the organization has focused on growing him along a two-way path. Check out his percentages from college, and even his early professional days in the NBA Development League, as a member of the Houston Rockets’ affiliate in Rio Grande, and you’ll see the 6-foot-9, 215-pound Chicagoland native has long demonstrated palatable potential from the perimeter.

It was his defensive skill set that needed to be further unlocked and harnessed.

Over the years, Covington has put in plenty of one-on-one time with Lloyd Pierce, the Sixers’ assistant who has functioned as the team’s defensive coordinator since Brown’s arrival. Covington has also become a film junkie of sorts, spending a good portion of his down time studying clips of himself, opponents, and premiere players from the past.

Growing up amid the championship heyday of the Bulls in the mid-1990s, there was a good player for Covington to model himself after. His favorite player was Scottie Pippen.

“He’s probably one of the best in NBA history,” said Covington, as he thought about players who helped establish the blueprint for the modern day two-way small forwards to follow. “He guarded so many guys. He’s long, athletic. He’s very much similar to me – that’s why he’s my favorite player. That’s probably the reason why I wear [uniform] number 33 as well.

“I’ve watched him a lot. Film, YouTube clips, everything I’ve done, I’ve built a lot around that. Just seeing how much emphasis he put on the defensive end, that made him that much more better as a player.”

Pippen, of course, broke into the NBA with a far loftier pedigree than that of the undrafted Covington, and had a knack for scoring in volume. It wasn’t until the middle stages of Pippen’s Hall of Fame career that his 3-point shooting emerged as a dependable, consistent weapon.

Defense, however, was a consistent staple of Pippen’s game. He racked up NBA All-Defensive Team honors 10 times, all in succession, from 1991 to 2000. The recognition is one that Covington, too, hopes to garner eventually. His efforts this campaign could make him a legitimate candidate for the distinction later this spring.

“That [would be] an accomplishment for me,” he said. “I would be happy if it happens. It just shows everything that I’ve really worked for, Coach has pushed me through, seeing it all unfold. It’d be amazing to see my name on the all-defensive team.”

As the season winds down, team-oriented goals are also on Covington’s mind. After being part of only 28 victories over his first two years with the Sixers, the club has a realistic shot at posting 30 wins before its April 12th finale, and tripling its total from last season.

“That would be a sign of where the culture is headed toward in the upcoming years,” he said. “Just to see everything unfold, it’s just something to look forward to in the upcoming years.”

Much like Covington’s personal progress, which continues to represent one of the Sixers’ most noteworthy developmental success stories.

“Coach has really believed in me, my teammates have really believed in me,” said Covington. “That just makes me want to work that much more harder. I’m the last guy that’s been here, part of the process, over the past few years. Seeing how everything is unfolding, it’s going to be scary once everything really starts to happen.”

Sizing Up the Nets (16-57):
Look out. With just a few weeks to go in the regular season, here come the Brooklyn Nets. Seriously.

Despite holding the NBA’s lowest winning percentage, Brooklyn has been playing quality basketball as of late, and have results to show for it. With three wins in their last four games, the Nets have so far compiled a record of 7-8 in March. Before the month began, Brooklyn had only nine victories on its ledger.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Nets’ reversal of fortunes has coincided with the return of Jeremy Lin, who signed with Brooklyn as a free agent this off-season. Sidelined for most of the year, the 28-year has averaged 14.7 points per game in March.

Series History:
The Sixers edged Brooklyn in the Atlantic Division rivals’ two prior meetings this season.

On December 18th at The Center, Joel Embiid powered his way to a career-best 33 points, helping nudge the Sixers to a 108-107 triumph.

In a January 8th matinee at Barclays Center, Dario Saric came off the bench to notch 18 points, as the Sixers used a breakout third quarter to erase an 11-point deficit in their 105-95 win.

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