There is an interesting thing that Robert Covington does when he is asked a question. He never separates himself from the team.
When reporters ask him how he feels or what he thinks, Covington responds with “We want,” or “Our goals are.”
Before the first preseason game, he was asked what his personal expectations were for this season.
“My expectation is that we grow as a team,” Covington said.
Even when he is asked about how his defensive prowess could put him into the conversation for defensive player of the year, he shies away from taking credit for his performance and downplays the need for individual praise in the NBA.
“Of course I want to solidify myself as an elite defender,” Covington said. “The recognition means a lot, but it’s just another thing. You can’t get happy with just those accolades.”
He repeats himself often saying that it doesn’t matter what a single player does — if it doesn’t translate to team wins, it doesn’t mean anything.
His team-first mentality and steady improvement do not go unnoticed, and he is being rewarded.
Where it all started
Covington has gone from being an undrafted rookie who played a total of 33 minutes, 48 seconds for the Houston Rockets in his first NBA season, to a starter who is an integral piece on a rising team.
After a year spent mostly in the D-League, where he was named rookie of the year, Covington was plucked from the minor league ranks by the 76ers. A team with no intentions of winning, the Sixers’ brightest hope — Joel Embiid — was sidelined with injuries and setbacks, and the team wasn’t known for keeping players around for development.
With a lack of talent and a slough of injuries on the Sixers, Covington was able to play in 70 games in the 2014-15 season, starting in 49 of those games. He maintained the same role the following year, when Elton Brand came out of retirement for a second stint with the team.
Covington’s and Brand’s lockers were next to each other’s during the 2015-16 season and the two became close friends. Brand said he watched the young guy from Tennessee State grow and fight to become a better player and a great person.
In 1999, Brand was the No. 1 overall draft selection of the Chicago Bulls. He can relate to the pressures and expectations thrust upon guys like Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. But Brand says the pressures for a guy like Covington can be even greater.
A lottery pick will have the chance to prove himself. The financial investment in a high draft pick turns into a higher investment in the development of a player and the opportunities he gets.
“But if you go undrafted, then you’re expendable, very expendable,” Brand said. “At that point, you have to fight for every minute, and that’s what Robert Covington did.”
Putting in the work
Though Covington was known as a shooter, Sixers opponents were able to slow him down since there weren’t other threats that demanded their attention. So Covington was tasked with upping the ante on defense.
The term “work ethic” is used at a ridiculous rate in professional sports and it’s a term that is, of course, used to describe Covington. But how do we separate how much work he puts in compared to other players?
Brand says there are plenty of guys who are in the gym first thing in the morning, have a precise routine, and are known for their work ethic. But Covington separates himself because even if he shows up early, he also stays late.
“He won’t leave the gym until he feels like he’s gotten everything right,” Brand said.
The work is paying off. Covington has separated himself into an exclusive group in the NBA — the two-way players. Last year, Covington led the NBA in deflections and was tied for fourth in steals per game. He was fourth in the defensive player of the year voting and is one of the most feared defensive small forwards in the game.
“His path from where he was to where he is, is one that I respect,” head coach Brett Brown said. “He’s very mindful and prideful of putting in the work, and he will be rewarded for that. I love him.”
What the future looks like
With the addition of Simmons and Embiid’s return from injury, teams will not be able to focus solely on running Covington off the three-point line. The other stars on the team will draw the attention of defenses and Covington will have more chances to produce offensively.
Even with veteran additions to the team and multiple No. 1 picks on the roster, Brown sees Covington as an important piece of the starting unit and a guy who can be trusted at the end of the game to make winning plays.
Covington is in the final year of his contract and is slated to become an unrestricted free agent after this season. Before training camp started, he said he has had conversations with the Sixers’ brass about his contract but nothing has been set in stone.
“It’s a business, so you never know how things will pan out. It’s just a matter of what’s going to happen from here on out,” Covington said. “Of course I want to be in Philadelphia, but you never know.”
Brand said he also has talked to Covington about how to navigate the contract situation.
Veterans who are accomplished in the league will often not worry as much because they know teams will take their history into account. But young players will often see an expiring contract and think they need to fill the stat sheet in order to secure their place on a team. Brand doesn’t want Covington to overanalyze himself in the coming season.
“We talked about that and I’ve told him to be guarded when it comes to that,” Brand said. “You don’t want to press too much in the mental aspect and worry too much.”
Covington has taken Brand’s advice, which fits perfectly with his team-first persona.
“When you’re trying to get noticed, it first has to come from within the team,” Covington said. “You’re not going to prosper by just getting in your shots. There’s no ‘I’ in team, there’s only an ‘I’ in win.”