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The Best Undrafted Player in the NBA

For Robert Covington, it’s been a process. The Sixers’ 3-and-D specialist talks about his long road from Tennessee State, the D-League, and the fallow times with Hinkie-era Sixers to where he is now: one of the most effective role players in the game, playing for one of the most exciting teams in the league  

Robert Covington Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Philadelphia 76ers may have emerged from the darkness of a multiseason rebuild, but the Process still casts a long, Hitchcockian shadow over the organization. Deposed general manager Sam Hinkie’s thoughtful methods continue to be debated. Joel Embiid adopted the handle as a chantable nickname. And Jahlil Okafor’s current bench-warming plight is amplified by his central role in the controversial strategy.

But no one is more inextricably tied to the Process than Robert Covington. Mirroring the team’s trajectory over the last half-decade, the 26-year old forward went from a D-Leaguer who was ostensibly “in Philly to help the Sixers lose” to a ball-hawking sharpshooter who earned a four-year, $62 million extension in mid-November. Yet the man most closely identified with the one of the most polarizing rebuilds in modern basketball history never paid much attention to all the furor.

“I didn’t really get too much caught up in the stigma,” Covington told The Ringer. “It wasn’t about the losing aspect. Guys that never had a chance were given an opportunity to showcase their talent. We didn’t win a lot of games, but it made us mentally stronger. We still went out and fought hard.”

The overwhelming narrative of Hinkie’s figurative life, death, and elevation to martyred sainthood has subsumed one of the NBA’s most inspirational feel-good stories. Through a quarter of the young season, Covington, who will turn 27 next month, has transformed into one of the league’s premier 3-and-D wings — the perfect complement to ball-dominant rising stars Embiid and Ben Simmons. Currently averaging 14.9 points (on a gaudy 61.4 percent true shooting percentage), 6.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.7 steals per game, Covington is among the league leaders in made trifectas and 17th in steals per game. And here’s a shocking stat: By ESPN’s RPM, he’s ranked fourth in the NBA, behind only James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Nikola Jokic (your favorite stat head’s favorite player).

Let’s appreciate the rarity of Covington’s ascension. The odds of succeeding in the NBA are imposing for anyone, but particularly for undrafted free agents. Only 21 of their accursed ilk have played more than 300 minutes this season, and just a handful are etched-in-stone starters. With respect to contributors like Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, Joe Ingles, Tyler Johnson, Wes Matthews, and Sixers teammate T.J. McConnell, Covington is the only one considered a building block on a potential contender.

This season Covington’s stellar performance is borderline historical for someone who was snubbed in the draft. Since 1989, when the NBA shortened the draft from seven rounds to its current two, only four undrafted players (Bo Outlaw, Ben Wallace, Darrell Armstrong, and Brad Miller) have posted a higher box plus-minus for a season than Covington’s current mark of 3.7, just below Matthews’s in 2014–15. (Aspiring GMs might note that even defensive studs are prone to slipping through the cracks of conventional scouting.)

“I wasn’t given anything,” Covington said. “It made me have a bigger chip on my shoulder. In order for me to feel good about myself and prove others wrong, I had to go out and do whatever it took to get to this point. It’s been a journey — but a journey that I wouldn’t change for anything.”

Covington’s circuitous path started in Chicago. His family moved to the suburbs when he was 8; his mother was a manager at a Sports Authority and his father worked at a post office. He credits his parents with instilling in him a strong work ethic, a lesson administered when he was kept off the middle school team after his grades dipped. “My parents, they really was preaching about notebooks,” he said. “If you’re not taking care of your stuff in class, your sports are going to be taken away.”

Early on, Covington got used to being overlooked. After playing for Proviso West High School, only two colleges offered Covington a scholarship. He spent four years at Tennessee State — putting up 17 points and eight rebounds a game as a senior — and then went undrafted in 2013. In a scouting report, DraftExpress detailed some of the concerns that NBA teams may have shared at the time: “His lack of fundamentals on the defensive end, his passive demeanor on the floor, and his general inconsistency against elite competition are legitimate red flags when projecting him at the next level.”

Following the 2013 draft, Covington signed with the Houston Rockets but spent most of the season with the 3-point-heaving Rio Grande Valley Vipers, a team that served as a petri dish for Daryl Morey’s grand analytical experiment. In Hinkie’s lengthy resignation letter, he described being tormented by his failure to ink Covington to a post-draft deal. “Robert is a mistake I rubbed my own nose in for over a year,” he wrote. “When he became available 17 months later, we pounced. But I shudder, even now, at that (nearly) missed opportunity.”

In November 2014, Covington signed what would later become known as a notorious “Hinkie Special,” a nonguaranteed, four-year deal at roughly a minimum salary. The minuscule cap hit made it one of the league’s most favorable contracts from a team perspective — “Uh, I didn’t necessarily feel I had a great contract. It was a great contract because I guess people felt like it could be expendable or it wouldn’t be hard for a team to go out and get certain pieces,” Covington said — but the Sixers recently utilized an undersold benefit when they renegotiated the final year with a $15 million bump, paying him from this year’s cap pool and extending his contract for four additional seasons at a below-market rate. Basically, everyone won.

Ben Falk, who was the Sixers’ vice president of basketball strategy during Hinkie’s tenure (and now runs an excellent site called Cleaning the Glass), recalled when Covington first joined the relatively barren Philly roster. “When we brought him in, it was pretty apparent we didn’t have players like him,” he said. “The offense got so much better just having one player who could legitimately be a threat on the court. The question was, is this just in contrast to the rest of the team — or is there something real there?”

While Covington is a streaky spot-up shooter whose occasional cold snaps have earned the ire of ungrateful Sixers fans, his ability to bombard opponents with a fusillade of 3s has never been a question. He has a balanced and fluid release, a feathery ball rotation, and a high release point that allows him to hoist up shots unperturbed by draped defenders. Despite cooling off from a torrid start to the season, he’s knocking down 42.5 percent of his shots from deep, an area from which he takes about two-thirds of his field goal attempts.

To be clear, Covington is a specialist. He gets into trouble when he puts the ball on the floor, but he’s finishing more effectively than usual at the rim — a likely byproduct of the Sixers’ improved spacing and the offensive magnetism of Embiid and Simmons. “It’s a lot easier,” he said of this season. “They put so much pressure on the defense, and both of them are able passers.” On November 13, he exploded for a career-high 31 points against the Clippers on only 12 shots, while going 5-of-8 from distance.

A bigger surprise has been Covington’s emergence as one of the league’s staunchest perimeter defenders. He is one of those rangy, versatile defenders who came en vogue once “tweener” turned from an epithet into a compliment. Covington has solid footwork and spacial understanding, but what makes him exceptional is the nearly 7-foot-2 wingspan that accompanies his 6-foot-7 frame. He’s currently fourth in the league with 3.5 deflections per game, and he led the NBA with 4.2 deflections per game last season (John Wall and Draymond Green tied for second with 3.9). Covington is tied for 17th in the league in steals per game and was, respectively, sixth and 14th in steals percentage over the two prior seasons. There are times when his arms simply take over, stripping the ball from driving opponents, tipping passes in pick-and-rolls, and acting as a one-man thicket of limbs in passing lanes.

“His hands are incredible,” Falk said. “You saw this immediately in practice. There’s something about his quickness, his hand-eye coordination, his anticipation. He’s able to get those deflections and be disruptive in a way that many players aren’t.”

Covington credits the Sixers coaching staff, along with his time in the weight room and studying film, for his defensive improvement, and said he wasn’t even aware of his freakish ability to clamp mitts on the ball until the team started monitoring deflections. He takes pride in being tasked with guarding the league’s most combustible scorers. “I’m looking forward to the matchup against Paul George, Melo, Russ and them,” he said. “I’ve faced pretty much everybody. It makes it that much more harder, but it also allows me to help my team. Me knowing I’m the one that’s taking the majority of that load and allowing my teammates to prosper — I love that.”

After Wednesday’s victory over the Wizards, the Sixers are 12–8, in spitting distance of home-court advantage in a first-round playoff series and entertaining fever dreams of a LeBron James defection. With each win, the Process will be both celebrated and, unfortunately, calcified as a simplistic “lose now, win later” scheme that Zombie Formalist GMs dare replicate only at the jeopardy of their own career.

Robert Covington is not only part of the story, but someone who deserves a ballad of his own.