After going undrafted in 2013, the Houston Rockets gave Robert Covington a shot last summer by signing him to a partially guaranteed two-year contract. Although he only appeared in seven games with the Rockets in the 2013-2014 season, his rookie campaign was far from a disappointment. Covington spent the majority of it on assignment with the team's D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and made the most of it, putting up gaudy numbers of 23.2 points (good for second highest in the D-League) and 9.2 rebounds per contest.
As a result of his hard work, the 17 head coaches voted Covington as the D-League's Rookie of the Year. He was also named the MVP of the D-League's All-Star game thanks to his record-breaking performance, in which he scored 33 points in the Prospects' win.
With his rookie season now under his belt, Covington is looking to build upon a successful year in the D-League by carving himself out a role on the Houston Rockets. However, seeing as the team already has a total of nine small forward and power forwards on their roster -- that number includes Covington -- he has his work cut out for him if he hopes to make an impact next season.
With that in mind, one can't help but wonder how likely it is that he works his way into the rotation.
In 42 games in the Vipers' three-point happy system, Covington knocked down a total of 133 threes and converted them at a high rate (37.0 percent). Yet unlike most stretch fours that have found their feet in the NBA, the majority of his shots from the perimeter didn't come from the corners; they came from the wings. He's capable of pulling up on the fast-break, popping off of screens, spotting up on the perimeter and scoring off of set plays. He doesn't have the quickest of releases, but given his size and huge wingspan (7-foot-2) he doesn't need a lot of space to get a shot off.
Nearly 50 percent of Covington's shots with the Vipers came from three and it's the biggest asset he brings to the Rockets right off the bat. He knocked down five or more threes on 10 separate occasions, and hit 10 en route to his season-high, 45 points, on February 22nd against the Tulsa 66ers. Covington is a good free throw shooter, too. He averaged 4.9 attempts per game from the charity stripe and converted on 84.3 percent of them.
Attacking the Basket
Covington's bread and butter is his ability to space the floor, but he is also capable of taking his defender off the dribble and attacking the basket. He doesn't have a go-to move -- in fact, his offensive repertoire is somewhat limited -- but he's good at finishing around the basket when he gets there thanks to his long wingspan (he shot 60.7 in the restricted area last season and 84.6 percent on driving layups). Covington attacks the basket with strength and when he gets a full head of steam, it's hard to stop him. He's also a big target on the fast break, which makes a point guard's life easy.
However, his first step isn't great -- possibly the result of a torn meniscus he suffered in his senior year at Tennessee -- and he has a tendency to fade back and settle for a tough shot once his defender has cut off a straight line to the basket. He also gets pushed off of his spot too easily when someone bigger is defending him, and because he lacks explosiveness he shows the ball too often, which is a shot blocker's dream. As a member of the Vipers, Covington only shot 45.0 percent on layups, which was below the league average.
The result of all that places Covington as a tweener. He struggles to get to the basket against quicker forwards and gets pushed around by bigger players, causing him to float around the perimeter and take himself out of games when his outside jumper isn't falling. However, he'd be used primarily as a floor spacer in the Rockets' system and playing alongside the likes of James Harden and Dwight Howard would open up lanes to the basket, which would play to his strengths and improve his overall effectiveness.
Despite some much needed improvements to his in-between game, Covington will be able to work his way into the Rockets' rotation if he does two things on a consistent basis: knock down outside shots and play defense.
Covington has all the tools to be a great defender. His length plays a big part in that, as it allows him to flourish in the passing lanes and challenge shots at the rim, which was on full display with the Vipers where he averaged 2.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. He has great instincts in half court sets and is an effective team defender. He also has a tendency to keep his hands up straight rather than chasing blocks, which, seeing as he has a 8-foot-10 standing reach, helps him in a big way.
One thing Covington struggles with defensively, though, is guarding bigger players; he just doesn't have the strength nor length to go back-and-forth with them in the low block. However, a lot of that can be eliminated if he's in the right system.
The beauty of the Vipers' offensive schemes last season was that it allowed them to get up-and-down the court quickly, and they thrived because all five players on the court could space the floor. But the downfall of that was their defense suffered -- they gave up 121.6 points per game, the most in the D-League. That meant players like Covington were defending positions they simply shouldn't, which put them in a tough position; one that eventually played a role in their season ending sooner than they had hoped.
That problem wont be solved in the flick of a wrist, yet it can be contained. Covington will likely fill the small forward position with the Rockets, which would rid him of spending copious amounts of time guarding power forwards and centers. Nevertheless, it's something that could come back to haunt him if they go with a small lineup and he matches up against bully-ball forwards like the Memphis Grizzlies' Zach Randolph.
Note: The Rockets' fourth most used lineup last season was Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Omri Casspi and Dwight Howard. Given Covington's ability to stretch the floor and defend, there's a strong possibility that he could replace Casspi in that five-man unit, which would result in him having to guard opposing fours. Also, seeing as Terrence Jones' backups are currently Jeff Adrien, Joey Dorsey, Josh Powell and Clint Capela, there may be some space minutes there for Covington.
There's a reason why the Rockets signed Covington to a two-year contract, despite going undrafted, and there's a reason he thrived with the Vipers: he's a big who can stretch the floor and catch fire in a hurry.
For that reason, Covington's impact next season hinges on his ability to space the floor. The issue is, however, that in Rio Grande Valley, he had the freedom to, essentially, fire at will. While he knocked down 3.2 threes per game, it took him 8.5 attempts to get there. Not only that, in the 11 games he attempted six threes of less he combined to shoot 12-for-45 (26.7 percent), which raises concerns for when he steps into a much smaller and specialised role. Covington also struggled to find his shot this past Summer League and his game suffered as a result -- in 24.1 minutes per game, he averaged 7.6 points on 27.8 percent shooting from three (10-for-36).
Nevertheless, the tools are there for him to be an impactful player. Covington did, after all, average 23.2 points per game on 44.0 percent shooting from the floor and 37.0 percent from three with the Vipers. If he becomes more consistent with his outside shot and continues to play the defense he's capable of, there's no reason why he can't work his way into the Rockets' rotation. He brings them a much needed dimension on both ends of the court as a big who can crash the boards, stretch the floor and play with an abundance of energy. It's why Terrence Jones saw a boost in minutes in his sophomore campaign, and it's why his ability to knock down threes would make him that much more valuable to the Rockets.
He also has this going for him: the Rockets are big on his potential. He's a hard worker, which they love. There are nothing but positive reports coming out of their camp about his shooting ability and work ethic, and he has the approval of the man up top.
Big time future. Strong ability to shoot/attack basket/defend MT @mangelq75 Whats your assessment of Covington so far?— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) March 25, 2014
All the signs point towards Covington getting an opportunity to work his way into the roster next season, and if he steps up to the plate when that chance is presented to him, he could be a great addition to the Rockets' bench unit. Knockdown shooters tend to find a home in the league, as do lockdown defenders. Combine both of those and you have what Covington could be in a perfect world.