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Sixers forward Robert Covington deserves more respect for his all-around game

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Covington deserves kudos, not boos, for his all-around play.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Covington is shooting poorly this season; Robert Covington is positively impacting the Sixers this season. Both these ideas can be true, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.

When Covington joined the Sixers in 2014, shooting was his calling card. He shot 37.4 percent from three on over six attempts per game that season, providing floor spacing for a team in desperate need of shooters. The Sixers have the same dire need in 2017 — perhaps an even bigger one given the cavalcade of big men — but somewhere along the way the jumper went off the rails.

Fans have grown increasingly frustrated with Covington, to the point that his first missed three last night drew boos from the home crowd. With each missed attempt — Covington shot 1-9 from deep against the Minnesota Timberwolves -- the chorus grew louder.

And yet there he is, tossing in an acrobatic finish for the game-winning points. There he is from minute one to minute 48, exploding through traffic to grab contested rebounds and putting the team’s true bigs to shame on the glass. When you need a weak-side rotation to prevent an easy look at the rim for Andrew Wiggins, he’s there again, stopping fourth-quarter bleeding and keeping just enough space between the two teams to guarantee a win.

Covington hears the boos and knows the shots aren’t falling. But he knows his responsibilities stretch beyond whether his shot falls or not.

“People are just focusing on, a lot of times, just one aspect of the game,” he said after the win. “They don’t see the whole game in full. What we see is, I might have shot bad on the offensive end, but we chart things like a lot of deflections, effort chart, dive for loose balls, rebounding, a lot of stuff people really don’t pay attention to.”

“My teammates push me. I’m one of the leaders on this team, and I really don’t want to let them down. I have to give it my all every time I step on the court because if I do it, they’ll do it as well. They’ll see all the effort I’m putting into it, and it’s contagious.”

He isn’t lying about the deflections; Covington is tied for the league lead right now, with a hefty 4.3 per game. The top of the chart is a who’s who of some of the league’s peskiest defenders.

NBA deflections leaderboard

Player name Deflections per game
Player name Deflections per game
Robert Covington 4.3
Draymond Green 4.3
Chris Paul 4
John Wall 4
Jimmy Butler 3.9
Kawhi Leonard 3.9
Tony Allen 3.7

It’s not just about volume, though. Brett Brown has talked for years about building and maintaining a defensive identity, and Covington has taken on the nightly responsibility of guarding the opposing team’s best wing players.

“I’ve taken on a role to really be one of the top defenders in the league,” he said. “You go back and look at everything I’ve done throughout the year, and it’s a matter of just keep building upon that. I’m never going to stop, because I see what I’m capable of now and I just want to get better each and every day.”

Wing defense can be an ugly and unforgiving job. The death of post play leaves big men with rim protection as their primary responsibility on defense, and failure to prevent a made layup from a driver is often explained away as the fault of a team’s guards and wings allowing penetration. The wings tracking their assignment through screens and perpetual motion don’t get the same benefit of the doubt; Covington can put in the work to track his man only to watch him drain a jumper in his face, and a casual observer will simply note he failed to prevent a make.

It’s not so different from jump shooting, really. Players like Covington can get in the right position, nail your mechanics, make the right play and still wind up on the wrong side of the outcome. It’s just as demoralizing for an opponent to continually drop shots on you as it is to come up empty on the other end.

Covington’s even demeanor may be his strongest asset. Though conjecture runs rampant about mental issues possibly hurting his shot, he never hesitates to let it fly when he’s open. Despite his woeful shooting against the Wolves, he came through when called upon to limit Wiggins, holding the explosive forward to 2-15 shooting, even as a poor night from three gave him every excuse to be down on himself.

And when Brown called his number for the game-winning shot, the same relentless mentality carried him over the line and past the boos.

“That just shows you how versatile and how dynamic I am as a person,” he said. “No matter what, when things aren’t going my way at times, I never stop playing, I never stop fighting, and I’m never going to give into what others say about me.”

Make no mistake, the Sixers desperately need Covington to get going from deep. Their offense generates a lot of quality looks for players like he and Ersan Ilyasova, and made threes would be the difference between sweating out wins and winning comfortably.

It’s just increasingly hard to watch what he does to impact the game despite the failing jumper and sympathize with the boo birds. Philadelphia is a town that likes to tout itself as blue-collar, appreciative of a tough, defensive edge. The town has enshrined the Buddy Ryan era Eagles for life for their monstrous defense, even in the absence of a playoff victory.

Covington is as blue-collar and Philadelphia as it gets. He’s a small-school, undrafted player who had to grind through the D-League just to get a chance to stick in the NBA. He has been in Philadelphia through the toughest years of The Process with none of the accolades, salary, or benefit of the doubt retained by the team’s high draft picks, yet has played just as big a role as any of them. Through it all, his effort and his commitment to serving the team on both ends of the court has never waned.

Maybe Robert Covington’s jumpshot never comes back, and maybe it limits his ability to be a long-term piece. But give me 15 players who work and care like Covington does, who play through adversity and never drop their heads, and I will happily go to war against anybody you have.