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Sixers Season Preview: Robert Covington can benefit from the makeup of this year’s team

Robert Covington could be the diamond in the rough the Sixers have been hoping for. Will he take the next step?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers-Media Day Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie has been criticized for many things, from not talking to Howard Eskin often enough, to eschewing roster fit in favor of haphazard asset maximization, to singlehandedly destroying the sanctity of professional basketball. But of the aspersions cast upon him, perhaps the most fair was the relative lack of success he had in unearthing diamonds in the rough despite devoting several roster spots and an ample number of 10-day contracts to aid in achieving that goal.

Robert Covington has always been the shining exception that Hinkie’s followers could point to. A 6’9” forward picked up off the D-League scrap heap, his three-point prowess and rangy defensive potential quickly made him a fan favorite. And in his first season in Philadelphia in 2014-15, he started the third-most games on the team (49) and scored more points per contest (13.5) than any player who appeared in more than half the team’s games that year. His 37.4 percent clip from beyond the arc was made more impressive because it came on 6.4 attempts per game, the seventh-most in the NBA that year.

Coming into last season, many expected the now 25-year-old forward to have a breakout campaign. But injury woes plagued Covington throughout the year, limiting him to 67 games and more importantly breaking up his rhythm early in the year. Missing nine of the team’s first 10 games last year with a sprained knee, he began the year 0-for-18 from long distance. After that, he had some stretches in which his shooting form appeared to come back around, but those were broken up by cold streaks that lasted weeks at a time.

Around Christmas, he put together a stretch of 13 straight games scoring in single digits and saw his minutes dip into the single digits at one point during that span. After a neck injury and concussion in March, he was forced to miss six games. When he returned, he actually put together his most consistent stretch of the season, scoring 17.6 points per game over the team’s final 11 outings and converting on 36.7 percent of his outrageous 120 three-point attempts over that span. Over the final four games of the year, he scored 100 points and made 24 of the 53 three-pointers he attempted (45.3 percent).

With Covington coming into his third season with the Sixers, a team that has added ample talent and created a more coherent roster than it’s had in either of the past two years, there is hope that he can fit into a role more befitting of his skill set – something resembling a true 3 & D. And while Ben Simmons’ fractured right foot has taken away perhaps the most gifted addition to the team this season, Covington still figures to benefit from the playmaking ability and offensive gravity of players like Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid.

Last year, 235 of Covington’s 482 three-point makes came while he was on the floor with Ish Smith, the team’s unquestioned floor general during his four months with the Sixers. Covington shot 37.4 percent on those 235 attempts compared to just 33.2% on attempts without Smith in the game. When the Tennessee State University alum was joined not only by the playmaker, Smith, but by big man Jahlil Okafor, who frequently drew double teams as a rookie, in place of Nerlens Noel, the disparity was 53.6 percent vs. 34.1 percent. It should be noted that this came in a sample size of just 113 minutes, but those who have watched as much Sixers basketball as many of us have over the past two years can attest, give Covington proper spacing (Embiid forcing help in the post and Bayless drawing attention on the perimeter) and/or a competent floor general (Sergio Rodriguez, Dario Saric, and eventually Ben Simmons) and he typically thrives.

Over the course of his career, Covington has consistently seen teams shade over on him and pin themselves to him off the ball, denying open looks without much fear of other players on the floor beating them. Without a guard who could drive to the hoop and draw weakside help before kicking out and lacking a big man with the offensive skills to attract extra defenders and the willingness to pass out of double teams, the Sixers had a hard time getting open looks for Covington in 2015-16. Last season, he attempted the fifth-most three-pointers per game in the league, 7.2, but he ranked 82nd in wide open (6+ feet of space) threes taken at 1.4 per game. When he did get those open looks, he converted at an impressive 42.7 percent clip; he shot 44.8 percent on open threes the year prior.

Robert Covington: Open vs. Covered (via NBAsavant)
Robert Covington: Open (>5 ft space) vs. Covered (<5 ft space) – via NBAsavant

Last season was actually worse for Covington than his first year with the Sixers in terms of the quality of his three-point attempts. Two years ago, 23.5 percent of his threes came with the nearest defender 6+ feet away; he shot 37.4 percent from beyond the arc that season. Last year, though, just 19.9 percent of Covington’s attempts from beyond the arc were wide open; he shot 35.3 percent from deep on the year.

Covington enters this season as the Sixers’ unquestioned starter at the small forward position, and if early returns are any indication – 6-for-15 (40.0 percent) from deep through three preseason games – he’s hopefully ready to hit the ground running this year. Set to make just a shade over $2.1 million over the next two years, expect Covington to continue to be given ample opportunities to prove himself in Philadelphia.

*player tracking stats via stats.nba.com