For all the criticism Robert Covington faced last season, maybe the Philadelphia 76ers made a bold statement by not pursuing Kawhi Leonard this summer. While the rumors of Leonard coming to Philly hinged on head coach Brett Brown packaging Covington in a deal, many thought this was a no-brainer. However, a closer look will reveal just what the Sixers were thinking and why they declined.
How many can actually think back to when Leonard entered the NBA in 2011? If you can recall that then you will also remember he was nowhere near the player he is now. In his rookie season, Leonard averaged 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 49.3 percent from the floor. What saved Leonard from being considered a bust was that he had players like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker surrounding him with head coach Gregg Popovich leading the way.
But then you glance over at Robert Covington and there’s a slight difference in the way he was brought up in the league.
Robert Covington Struggled To Find His Role With The Philadelphia 76ers
During his first season with the Philadelphia 76ers, Covington averaged 13.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 27.9 minutes while shooting 39.6 percent from the floor. While the Sixers were a team under construction, it was clear they had managed to find a diamond in the rough much like the Spurs with Leonard. However, Leonard began to make traction as the Spurs would go on to win a title. Covington continued to hover between average and mediocre as wins for the Sixers were hard to come by.
By his fifth season, Leonard found his groove on the court and upped his scoring from 16.5 to 21.2 points per game. But that wasn’t all that increased. Leonard’s shot attempts also jumped from 12.8 to 15.1 as well as his minutes (31.8 to 33.1). By doing so, Leonard became a household name; not only on the offensive end but on the defensive end, as he would go on to win Defensive Player of the Year twice.
While Leonard was being applauded for his growth, Robert Covington was still learning how to play with new faces, dealing with a process, and still trying to find his place with the Philadelphia 76ers. In 2016, with the Sixers dealing with a rash of injuries, Covington finally get his shot.
While his numbers would not make as a dramatic jump as Leonard’s did, Covington carved out a pretty good niche with the young Sixers team. That season, he would average career-highs across the board with 12.9 points on 39.9 percent shooting, 6.5 rebounds and played 31.6 minutes per game. But the issue was still shot attempts. While Leonard’s increased, Covington’s still hovered around his normal of 10 per game. And to make matters worse, of those 10, Covington attempted 6.1 three’s per contest.
This is the part of his game that has fans baffled. Covington, much like Kawhi Leonard, had the athleticism to get to the rim with ease after opponents close out hard to his perimeter shots. But instead of taking advantage, he was found often setting up behind the three-point line instead of attacking the basket, which resulted in him becoming a third option on the offensive end when he should have been the first.
Covington Became A Defensive Force In 2017-18 Just Like Kawhi Leonard
As we fast forward to the 2017-18 season, the Sixers, finally healthy, needed Covington not to be the next Kawhi offensively but defensively. While playing on the wing, Covington was often matched against some of the top players in the NBA like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant. How did he fare? Well, while his numbers stayed the same, his defense improved to the point where he was named All-NBA First Team in a spot vacated by Kawhi Leonard.
With the Philadelphia 76ers relying on Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid for their scoring, Covington was able to reinvent himself as a top defender. Unlike Leonard’s situation, the Philadelphia 76ers didn’t need to rely on the outside shooting or driving ability of Covington for wins. In Brett Brown’s system, Covington is that ace in the hole the team can rely on to knock down a critical three or put the clamps on a top-flight scorer.
Can Brett Brown Continue to Mold Covington Into Leonard?
While he still has a ways to go before he can reach the level of Leonard, Covington, despite his struggles in the playoffs, has the makings of being the next Leonard. After a full season of getting accustomed to the styles of Simmons and Embiid, he should be more comfortable in 2018-19. At one point, the same was said for Leonard as he had to adjust to Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge. But once he found his groove, everything fell in place.
While Leonard was one of the hottest names in trade rumors this offseason, the Philadelphia 76ers didn’t make a move because they felt they had the second coming. Another thing to remember is, the same coach who helped mold Kawhi Leonard, just happens to be the same coach guiding Robert Covington. Just give the young player time.