IT WAS A dreary Sunday morning in San Antonio's AT&T Center when the 76ers were wrapping up a morning practice. Two nights earlier, they had dropped their ninth consecutive game to open the season in Houston. The Sixers' 2014-15 roster at that time included starters Tony Wroten, Henry Sims and Brandon Davies. Drew Gordon, Chris Johnson and Alexey Shved were some of the bench players Brett Brown could go to.
You get the picture.
That morning in San Antonio, the team introduced a newly signed 6-9 swingman who mostly made a name for himself in the NBA Development League. As Robert Covington took shot after shot following the practice, I watched and watched. Brown came over to me and said, "What do you see?" I quickly responded that this kid looked like a legitimate NBA shooter with great length and a natural shot that, at a very quick glance, looked as though it may belong.
It didn't take a genius to see that. Covington possessed a stroke that certainly wasn't seen on the Sixers' roster at any time during Brown's short tenure back then, and certainly not from someone that tall. The first glance kind of summed up who Covington was at the time - a shooter. Nothing more, nothing less. It was a skill the Sixers sorely needed at the time and one any team would love to possess.
Undrafted out of Tennessee State, Covington played 70 games his first year with the Sixers, a starter in 49 of them. He exceeded expectations by averaging 13.5 points a game while making 37.4 percent of his 446 three-point attempts. A shooter he proved to be, but a bit of a liability on most other areas on the floor.
Brown took a special interest in Covington, constantly impressing upon him the need to become a two-way player. There are many terrific shooters in the league, and many who aren't in the league, who can shoot just as well. The difference is the ones who stick have other NBA skill sets. So at the behest of his coach, Covington focused on those, particularly at the defensive end.
That is what he expects to carry him through now, the toughest stretch of his NBA career. Over his past seven games, Covington has shot 14-for-65 (21.5 percent) from the floor, including 8-for-43 (18.6 percent) from three-point range. Monday, against the visiting Miami Heat, Covington began the game making just two of his first 11 shots. The booing from fans began after that first miss and grew throughout the game. Still, Covington defended. He rebounded. He concentrated on other areas where he could help his team trying to get a fourth consecutive home win.
With just under four minutes left in the game, Covington got himself a nice layup to break a tie. Less than a minute later, he hit an open three for a five-point lead in what would eventually become a 101-94 win. The boos changed to deafening cheers.
The Covington of earlier years wouldn't have been able to do that. He was one-dimensional, perhaps a little soft in other areas of his game. His overall game on Monday proved he has grown into a player that Brown can rely on even when his shot isn't falling.
"You look at Robert Covington at the end and he came up with some rebounds and deflections," said Brown. "Of course we'll think about the (three-point) shot that he made, but I'm looking at the defense that our team had and he was a huge part of that.
"Somebody had given me a stat, I believe was produced by ESPN, and they had him as the third-ranked small forward in the NBA as far as his defensive efficiency rating. He really has improved his defense. All of us can only imagine, what, the last three, four games every shot goes up and there's oohs and aahs and misses and there's groans and boos. To stay with him, to encourage him, it was easy for me because he guards. And then for him to guard and make that big shot and make that big layup - his last two shots were makes - I think is a great reward for him."
Validation, really, for a coach and a player. While Covington's shot needs to start falling for him to be a valuable member of this team (he's averaging a career-lows of 7.4 points, 26.2 percent from the floor and 24.4 percent from three), watching him fight through his struggles at the offensive end by not letting it hinder other areas of his game is a true growth spurt for the 25-year-old.
"I know that the team relies on me for shooting, but they also rely on me on the other end as well," Covington said. "Coach told me a big thing a few years ago, that he wanted me to be a great defender and that's been what my primary focus has been the past few years. My growth with that has been tremendous. I can't hang my head that I'm not making shots, I just go down to the other end and make up for it. Fans can say how they feel. That's fine, but I'm not going to stop playing.
"All it takes is to see one ball go in. As a shooter, that's what allows you to get your confidence going. I impacted the game in other ways and coach told me that no matter what, to just keep playing. That's what I focused on. I don't get caught up in the crowd, boos or whatnot. It doesn't affect me. It will change. As soon as I hit the three, look what happened. It's nothing to take personally. It's just how they feel. I'm not mad about it, you just have to keep playing. My mentality is to never stop fighting. It's been a growth thing that I've had to develop."
As with most players on this roster, nothing is guaranteed to Covington as far as having a lengthy career in the league. But he has proved to his coach that he's an asset even when his shot isn't falling.
"I think it validates just sort of staying with him, him staying with himself and his teammates staying with him," said Brown. "He really is hard to take off the floor because he defends and he rebounds. It sure helped that he made that big shot, but for me it was easy to stay with him."