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Former Tennessee State star Robert Covington’s star on the rise along with 76ers

by Donal Ware

With 11 seconds remaining in the game between the Portland Trailblazers and the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night, 89% free throw shooter Damian Lillard stepped to the line for his second free throw after knocking down the first.

He missed.

The 76ers were down 92-90 at home at that point.  Ersan Ilysova grabbed the rebound and kicked it to T.J. Mc Connell.  McConnell got the ball across the time line, drove the ball to the right side then kicked it to Robert Covington left wing for three…

From Long Distance!

Covington’s three with 4.5 seconds remaining gave the 76ers a 93-92 lead. Mason Plumlee’s shot in the lane missed at the buzzer and the 76ers were victorious for the eighth time in 10 games.

Most of the talk about how well Philadelphia is playing is centered around the play of center Joel Embiid who was injured and not in the game when Covington hit the game-winner.  The former third overall pick did not play at all his first two seasons because of injury.  His return has helped to spark the 76ers.

But Covington is arguably the 76ers most consistent player over that time period.

Humble Beginnings
Recently, there haven’t been many players from the HBCU ranks that have made it to the NBA.  Covington and New York Knicks forward Kyle O’Quinn are the only two currently on a roster.

But Covington’s path to success however, seemed highly unlikely.  He wasn’t heavily recruited out of Proviso High School in Bellwood, Ill.  Tennessee State head coach Dana Ford, an assistant at TSU at the time, saw Covington at an unsigned senior showcase, a month before he graduated high school.  Ford invited Covington on a visit to TSU and the rest is history.

“I knew it was the right decision the first day,” Covington said on his recent appearance on the national sports talk show FROM THE PRESS BOX TO PRESS ROW w/ Donal Ware.  “After the first day, I called my mom and told her I found my school.  She asked me if I was sure and I said I’m sure.  I feel right here.”

At 6’9” with a high basketball IQ and great touch from outside, NBA scouts really began to take notice during his senior season.  Going into his senior season, Covington was projected as a late first round draft pick.

But his season got off to a bad start.  He began to get his rhythm back two weeks into the season and just as he did, he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for a little more than a month.  When he returned, he played solid, but scouts became concerned because he wasn’t dominating OVC competition.

Despite that, Covington had a great career at TSU and was a three-time BOXTOROW All-American.  He will go down in history as one of the Tigers’ all-time great players along with Dick Barnett, Anthony Mason, Truck Robinson, and Carlos Rogers–all of whom played in the NBA.

Covington finished his career seventh all-time in points (1,749) and rebounds (876).

A great start to pro career
The 2013 NBA Draft came and went and Covington did not hear his name called.

“Every college player wants to have the opportunity to hear his name called,” recalled Covington.  “Unfortunately I wasn’t able to, but I was still able to get something out of it.”

Right before the last name was called, Covington’s agent got a call from the Houston Rockets who were interested in signing Covington.  Less than two hours after the draft, Covington had signed a two-year partially guaranteed contract with the Rockets.

“It was quite a relief because I didn’t know if all my hard work would have been for naught,” he said.  “Once I got that phone call, it was a great feeling and a lot of relief.”

Covington had a good summer for the Rockets.  They optioned him to their NBA Development team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.  From time to time he would play for the Rockets during the 2013-14 season and made his NBA debut on January 18, 2014.  During the Rockets first round playoff run, Covington would play for the Vipers one day and be right back with the Rockets the next.

He was named the D League’s top rookie that year and was the league’s second leading scorer averaging 23.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game, while shooting 44 percent from the field.  Even with that, he was waived by the Rockets prior to the 2014-15 season.

Star on the rise
He was the D League’s top draft pick in 2014, but prior to playing for Grand Rapids Drive he signed with the 76ers.  He played in 70 games that season making 49 starts, averaging 13.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.4 steals per game and shot 37 percent from three-point range.

His offensive numbers went down slightly his second season to 12.8 points per game, 1.4 assists and 35 percent from three-point range.  His defensive numbers went up, as he pulled down 6.3 rebounds per game and averaged 1.6 steals per game.  Still, his game was solid and a lot was expected from him in 2016-17.

Boos turned to cheers
On January 3 against the Minnesota Timberwolves at home, Covington was having a terrible shooting night.  As a matter of fact he is shooting the lowest percentage of his career (.372) and is averaging 10.7 points per game.  But he’s helping the team in other ways and is regarded as the team’s top defender.

So despite the 10 rebounds and four steals, Covington had gone 3-for-13 and the Philly fans began to boo him.  He had also gone 0-for-11 the week before against Utah.  But as one of the top players on the team, he was in the game at crunch time.

Ricky Rubio’s three-pointer with 1.6 seconds remaining tied the game at 91-91.  Off the timeout Dario Šarić inbounded the ball cross court and Covington made a difficult catch near the 76ers basket and while falling away, was able to hoist the shot off the backboard through the net with 0.2 seconds remaining as the crowd erupted giving the 76ers the 93-91 lead and ultimately the win.

“I never let anybody else’s judgment affect how I’m going to play,” Covington said of the crowd booing him.  “I’m the leader of this team and when things aren’t going well on one end I have to make sure we’re all together on the other end.”

Since the game against the Timberwolves, Covington’s confidence is up and his numbers are up across the board.  He is averaging 12.6 points, shooting 43 percent from the field, shooting 37 percent from three-point range, is averaging 6.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals and one block per game.

The 76ers are 15-27, a far cry from their 10-72 record last year.  They are the talk of the NBA in the month of January.

Covington is a big part of the reason why.

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