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How Robert Covington has become the shooter the Sixers need

Slightly tweaked mechanics have led to greater results for the Sixers forward.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2017 playoffs, Robert Covington was outmatched in every way, shooting 31.3% on 4.8 three-point attempts per game. His uninspiring performance solidified the notion in some fans’ minds that the Sixers needed to replace him.

Through 11 games of the 2018-19 regular season though, Covington has flipped the script. He has become the Sixers’ glue guy — second in minutes with 34.0 per game — and the best shooter — shooting a team-high 42.2% on 5.83 3PA. With Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons in its starting lineup, this team needs Covington. He is the escape plan when the original plan goes awry — when Fultz spins into the abyss or Simmons slams into a brick wall of defenders.

The first thing I noticed with Covington recently was that he ironed out the kinks in his release. His release is now quicker and shoulder-width, inches above his head. Smaller forwards can’t reach the pinnacle of his release. Burlier forwards don’t reach the zipping ball in time.

In 2017, though, a hitch slowed the parts down:

In 2018, his shooting motion is faster and more natural:

Covington extends from a farther distance like the elastic man, as he’s clad in defenders. Leaning into his shot, Covington has always 1-2 stepped like most spot-up shooters, but now lunges like a cross country runner a few steps from the chalked-white finish line.

But first, what’s a 1-2 step? It’s the act of a right-handed player stepping into a jump shot with his left foot, then planting down the right. And what does it do? It engages natural power from the hamstrings and quadriceps, and in turn, allows for a stronger bend in his knees.

The first play in the below sequence was typical. Ben Simmons was in transition and his opponent sagged into the lane. Simmons dished it behind his back to Covington, who was wide open on the top of the arc. Johnson was forced to guard both Simmons and Covington — and it wasn’t hard — even though he was drowned deep in the lane. So Covington had the time and space to gather himself and plant his feet. Instead, he stumbled his feet in a clumsy rush.

This season, Covington lunges into passes to separate his frame from the weeping arms and willowing hands of defenders. How, then, does lunging help him more than stepping? It bends his legs to extract the untapped, leftover power packed into his 6’9’’, 215-pound frame. And it widens his base — so the strength of Boston and Miami’s defenders can’t easily deter him. In the end, his arms now act strictly as a guide to the ball’s front-whirling rotation.

So far this season, Covington’s improved footwork has proven a success. He’s shooting 45.6% from three when taking zero dribbles, after shooting 37.9% on such shots last season:

The scouting report has been written in permanent marker. Markelle Fultz or Ben Simmons can’t shoot, yes, but Robert Covington — equipped with his new shooting form — can stretch the floor out.

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