In the first of a two-part story, Gordie Jones takes an in-depth look at the journey of Sixers forward Robert Covington.
The care and feeding of Robert Covington’s jump shot begins about an hour before each 76ers game, when the fifth-year forward takes to the court with assistant coach Lloyd Pierce.
With Pierce alternately feeding him passes as they would come from the point, the post and via dribble handoff, Covington fires three-pointers from all over the arc — left corner, left wing, top of the circle, right wing, right corner. And back again.
The entire exercise takes maybe 15 minutes, as around him the stands within the Wells Fargo Center begin to fill. Opposing players are usually going about their business at the other end of the court, and other Sixers (usually JJ Redick) filter out of the locker room. Some sort of pregame entertainment is often going on at midcourt. One night earlier this season, it was the Villanova dance team. Another it was a half-dozen schoolgirls, lining up and singing.
Covington seems to notice only Pierce, the ball and the basket.
And that jumper — just a lovely thing.
“Great rotation, great air time, almost too much arc,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said.
The arc of his career has not always been so neat and clean — not when you consider he was undrafted in 2013, under-recruited four years before that (he wound up at Tennessee State) and unable to so much as make his middle school team several years before that.
This season has not been without turbulence, either. While he signed a four-year, $62 million contract extension in November — and while he is averaging 14.6 points and shooting 39.3 percent from the arc, both career highs — the 27-year-old Covington has had stretches when his touch has deserted him. He has dealt with ill health (a back injury, suffered earlier this month in Cleveland) as well as tragedy (the shooting death of a friend, who he has declined to fully identify, in his native Chicago in late November).
His approach — nose to the grindstone, control what you can control — remains a constant, however. Brown called his work ethic “a blueprint” for others, adding that he is “very much a poster child to what we hope to do.”
It matters little to Covington that he has been hailed as the NBA’s best undrafted player (by The Ringer’s Ben Detrick) or the foremost example of The Process (by The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann). And he vows his new contract, while nice, will not affect his mindset, either.
“I’m not going to let what happened to me now change me and get comfortable,” he said, “because I don’t know what comfortable is.”
As it happens he owns two black backpacks, one featuring a three-dimensional rendering of a lion on the side, the other featuring a wolf. The latter is the one he most often brings to games, and he tends to leave it in a prominent spot near his cubicle, just inside the door to the Sixers’ locker room.
It is, in other words, hard to miss, harder still to miss what it represents to him.
“The wolf,” he said, “symbolizes that hunger.”
That’s news to his stepdad, Dennis Bryant, who bought it for him.
“It was just a cool backpack to me,” he said, “and I knew it was something he would like to carry around.”
Then Bryant thought about it.
“Hungry like a wolf — think of it like that,” he said.
That hunger, not to mention that jumper (“the most powerful weapon there is,” Brown said), have allowed him to track ever upward, to reach this lofty point on his career arc.
“It was a time in the making,” Bryant said. “It was going to happen. It was just a process he was going through, but I’m not just going off the ‘Trust the Process’ thing. … We call his ‘The Journey.’”
It was aided and abetted not only by Dennis but also Covington’s mom, Teresa Bryant — a longtime postal worker and retired retail manager, respectively. Covington did not play middle school hoops as he grew from 5-9 to 6-3 (en route to his current 6-9), and he didn’t attract much recruiting interest as he was coming out of Proviso West High School, just outside Chicago.
And while he was productive at Tennessee State, he was not taken in the 2013 NBA draft, landing instead with the Houston Rockets as a free agent. He spent most of the 2013-14 season with the Development League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers, where he was coached by a man named Nevada Smith.
“Crazy competitive,” Smith, now coach of the Sioux Falls Skyforce, said of Covington.
That didn’t change after the Sixers picked him up on waivers in November 2014, and hasn’t changed since.
He’s still the same guy he’s always been, still hungry like a wolf.