Robert Covington is trending toward significant improvement in his sixth season with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are two of the NBA’s most marketable stars. As a result, the hype surrounding the Philadelphia 76ers can largely be attributed to them. Behind the haze, though, Robert Covington remains a supremely underrated talent.
Coming off his first All-Defense nomination, Covington will look to build on a stellar 2017-18 campaign. Once an undrafted free agent, the former Tennessee State star has come a long way in six NBA seasons. He’s one of Sam Hinkie’s greatest success stories.
In an increasingly malleable league, positional versatility is at an all-time high. Elite defenders who can defend 1-4 in spurts, like Covington, have a ton of valuable. And yet he brings more valuable off the ball, jumping into passing lanes and making the occasional weak-side block.
On the offensive end, Covington was a 36.9 percent three-point shooter with deep range. That was his highest mark since 2014-15, his first full season in the NBA (and with the Sixers). Even if he’s labeled streaky, he remains at or above the league average in that respect.
Covington embodies the 3-and-D virtues that so many talent evaluators praise. He’s ranked inside the top 50 for both Sports Illustrated and ESPN, meaning the national media has caught onto his subtle brilliance.
Through all those positives, however, Covington still has questions to answer during the 2018-19 season. The Celtics series wasn’t pretty for Cov, as he struggled to produce at his typical level on either end. That was largely due to his limited skill set.
His on-ball defense was below par, struggling to contain the likes of Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum off the dribble. With that said, his length and instincts normally equate to elite perimeter defense. The real concerns were on offense.
Boston rendered Covington useless. By running shooters off the three-point line, the Celtics were able to exploit the Sixers’ hapless inability to handle the ball. Outside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and T.J. McConnell — who ended up replacing Cov in the starting lineup — the Sixers didn’t have anyone capable of creating offense.
Covington was the primary culprit.
An excellent spot-up shooter, Covington needs to find ways to expand his value on the offensive end. One easy solution would be attacking closeouts, giving defenders more to think about when rushing out to defend his shot.
Despite his obvious talent, Covington is an oddly ineffective ball handler and finisher. He simply can’t create offense, seldom making it past a few dribbles before a) passing it up or b) turning it over.
Combine that with other non-creators (J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli, etc.) and the Sixers were unable to put pressure on the Celtics’ defense. Covington adding more dynamism to his game would add more dynamism to the Sixers overall.
At media day, the 27-year-old hinted at improvement in those key areas: ball handling and finishing.
Covington doesn’t need to become an elite shot creator or isolation scorer. His value is still rooted in spacing the floor for Embiid and Simmons, spotting up and launching from well beyond the three-point line.
With that said, it’s important for the Sixers to find other ways to get dribble penetration and put pressure on opposing defenses. Covington coupling his shooting range with the ability to drive in straight lines and finish at the rim would accomplish that goal.
We’ve already seen a few examples from Covington’s trainer this summer.
As long as Covington continues adding layers to his offensive game, he will remain the Sixers’ most important player outside Embiid, Simmons and potentially Markelle Fultz. His defense anchors Brett Brown’s switch-heavy scheme, while his shooting remains an essential complementary weapon next to the core pieces.
Expect another strong season as Cov enters his prime. We’ll see if those videos translate to NBA action.