Robert Covington is the longest-tenured player on the Philadelphia 76ers. The team started tanking during the 2013-14 season, winning just 19 games in Brett Brown’s first year as head coach. Since the team wasn’t competing at a high level, general manager Sam Hinkie decided to try out as many young prospects as possible throughout the regular season in an attempt to find some diamonds in the rough. During the 2013-14 season, 23 players suited up for Philadelphia. The following year, 25 players donned a 76ers jersey at some point. (The team won just 28 games over this two-year span.)
One of the bright spots was the discovery of Covington, whom the Sixers brought in because he had thrived in the G-League. Covington was a zero-star recruit in high school and received just two Division I scholarship offers. He ended up playing four years at Tennessee State and then went undrafted in 2013. He signed with the Houston Rockets as a rookie, but he spent nearly the entire season filling the stat sheet with their G-League affiliate (the Rio Grande Valley Vipers).
His G-League dominance led to his opportunity with the 76ers and he made the most of it. Not many players who are around for the early stages of a rebuild (much less an all-out tank) get to enjoy the team’s success years later. But Covington’s development has perfectly synced with the Sixers’ rise.
Last year, Covington averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 1.0 block and 2.5 made threes, and he made the All-Defensive 1st Team. Just when Philadelphia feels they’re ready to battle for the Eastern Conference crown, the 27-year-old Covington is in his prime and widely regarded as one of the league’s best 3-and-D players.
HoopsHype caught up with Covington while he was in Shanghai for the 2018 NBA China Games. He discussed his offseason training, the development of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, his thoughts on the Bryan Colangelo drama and more.
After seeing how the city reacted to the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl victory, did that motivate you? What were you thinking when you saw all of Philly celebrating like that?
Robert Covington: Oh yeah, it definitely motivated us. We saw the love that they got and it was amazing. Philly is one of the best cities when it comes to supporting their sports teams, so it was great seeing them celebrate like that for the Eagles. We know that one day, we’ll have the opportunity to [win a championship too] with the team that we have. We just have to work for it and do everything we can to make that happen because Philly deserves it. Philly is one of the most passionate cities I’ve ever been a part of or gotten to experience. It’s so unique. These are diehard fans. [We believe] we can be in that position. That’s setting big expectations for ourselves, a big goal to live up to, but I know our guys are really focused on that. We believe that we can live up to [those expectations].
Congratulations on your All-Defensive 1st Team selection last year. I think you should’ve made an All-Defensive team sooner, but I’m glad they finally recognized you. Do you feel like you can be the best defender in the NBA?
RC: Yes, I definitely feel like I can [be the NBA’s best defender]. It just comes from hard work and not giving up. I watch some of the best defenders and what they’ve done, including a lot of guys who are very unique. That’s what has allowed me to get to the point I’m at now – just watching a lot of film of guys and then going out and applying the things that I’ve learned. I’ve also been fortunate to have really good coaches who have taught me a lot.
You went undrafted in 2013 and you’ve been one of the successful undrafted players in recent years. What advice would you give to other players who don’t hear their name called on draft night?
RC: Never give up and always believe in yourself. That’s been my main thing. I’ve been the one to dictate my future. When I’ve gotten opportunities, I’ve tried my best to make the most of them. I’ve always felt like the only person who can stop me is myself. You have to have a really strong mindset, a strong mentality. I believe any adversity is just a test. And I think I have one of the strongest mentalities of any person, which is why I’ve been able to overcome a lot of adversity and obstacles.
You’re the longest-tenured player on the Sixers and it also seems like you’re one of the team’s leaders. What messages do you try to pass along to your teammates?
RC: You have to work for what you want. I’ve been able to work my way into this organization and become a key piece for this team. That’s because I work really hard and do what I have to do each and every day. I make sure to keep myself accountable, and I also keep others around me accountable and motivated. Coach Brown looks at me as one of the leaders, if not the leader, of this team because of everything I’ve faced and just how I’ve handled everything. He looks at me as one of the strongest people on this team. Like I said about my mentality, I want everyone thinking, “The only person who can stop me and myself.”
You’ve obviously had a front-row seat to the development of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons since they entered the NBA. What have you seen from them behind-the-scenes and what kind of strides have they made?
RC: They’re very, very, very, very developed. Entering this summer, we all had a nasty taste in our mouth after that experience with Boston. (In the playoffs, the Celtics eliminated the Sixers in five games). But the guys attacked their summer and now, they’re at a whole ‘nother level. When those guys came in, their bodies looked different. They were in a different mental space when they came in. Our whole approach has been different. One thing that I can say is that both of them, Joel and Ben, took that first [playoff] experience and used it as a lesson. They learned what they could from it and they reacted very well. Now, going into this season, their preparation and the way their bodies look and the way they’ve continued to get better, it’s very satisfying to see.
There has obviously been a lot of talk about Markelle Fultz, just because his summer workouts were pretty private by design. Now that we’ve seen him, I think he looks great and I love how confident and happy he seems. Where’s Markelle at confidence-wise and what have you seen from him behind-the-scenes?
RC: I’ve seen a lot from Markelle. I talked to him a lot throughout the summer, just to see what he was doing, so I kind of heard about his approach to this past summer and what he was doing. He was very, very motivated [going into the offseason]. He knew what he wanted to do, what he had to do. He attacked the summer head on, and it definitely shows. Seeing him in practices and at workouts and stuff, he’s definitely very satisfied and comfortable, so now that’s why you’re seeing his confidence. I think he already got the chip off his shoulder, so now he can just go play freely.
Whenever the Bryan Colangelo/burner-accounts situation was unfolding over the summer, what was it like to be a player in the middle of that and what were your thoughts as things were surfacing?
RC: It was a lot… But, I mean, you never really know the truth behind everything and you never know exactly what happened. I think you have to take everything with a grain of salt. You never know what the truth was behind it. But, as a player, you can’t allow yourself to get caught up in it too much because then it may start to affect your play and all that. We really just had to focus on what we had going on at that time. Then, during the offseason, that’s when everything played out [and Colangelo resigned]. Sometimes, you just have to move on. It’s sad that it happened to us, considering how everything was going [in the right direction]. But things happen.
Over the offseason, which aspects of your game were you most focused on improving?
RC: My main focuses were getting up shots off the dribble, ball-handling and different types of finishes at the rim. Those were the main things I emphasized. I’m still focused on getting stronger. I still work on my strengths too, like my jump-shot. I’ve been working on my form a little more.
You were recently in Shanghai for the 2018 NBA China Games. What was that experience been like?
RC: It was great. We went around and did some sightseeing in Shanghai. We got to see a couple monuments and walk around the city a little bit. We got to see some of the fans throughout the city. It was cool to learn a bit about their culture.
Does that kind of experience bring the team together?
RC: Yeah, yeah, it definitely does. There were a number of guys on the team who had never experienced anything like that, including myself, so it was special. It was a really unique experience for us. With all of us being over there, we were enjoying ourselves and having a really good time together as a group. It’s a blessing to be a part of something like that and it was so fun. Not too many people get to experience something like that.
As you enter the season, have you set any individual goals for yourself?
RC: Nah, I just want to win. I just want to win. I want us to keep up that same momentum from last year. Once all our pieces are healthy, it’s scary what we can all do because we could have a really deep bench. Individually, I just want to keep being a better teammate.
What’s your relationship like with Brett Brown? You were obviously together during the “process” years and now he’s viewed as one of the best coaches in the NBA. How is your relationship with Coach Brown?
RC: We have a very unique relationship. We talk all the time, and we’re very open and honest with each other. He’s always asking my opinion on things because he respects my opinions. He respects me as a person and respects my mindset. He knows that I’m knowledgeable when it comes to the basketball side as well as the business side. We talk to each other a lot and I think our relationship is unique just because of how open we can be with each other. Coach is all about honesty, and that’s how he has always been. That’s one of the things that I respect most about him, and that’s one of the reasons that I developed such a great relationship with him.