Ex-Proviso West star Robert Covington ‘poster child’ of tank-mode development

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Former Proviso West star Robert Covington (taking instructions from coach Brett Brown), undrafted out of Tennessee State in 2013, signed a four-year, $62 million extension with the Philadelphia 76ers this season. He is averaging 12.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. (Darron Cummings/
AP)

Tanking was the best thing to ever happen to Robert Covington. It gave him a chance. He did the rest.

The former Proviso West star returned to his hometown Thursday night with the Philadelphia 76ers as a “poster child” of the benefits of player development that can bolster a rebuild as a productive complement to top-five draft picks.

Undrafted out of Tennessee State in 2013, the 6-9, 225-pound Covington was cut by the Houston Rockets after playing seven games with them as a rookie in 2013-14 and ended up in the D-League. When the Sixers signed him a month into the 2014-15 season, he was a roll-of-the-dice, if not a place-holder for team in deep tank mode. Even coach Brett Brown acknowledged he was a not considered a “keeper.”

But instead of holding a spot for a future first-round draft pick, Covington worked on his game, especially his defense and developed into a versatile shooter/defender who is now firmly part of the foundation of the rebuild. A player who was cut four times from the basketball team at MacArthur Middle School in Berkeley and had two scholarship offers out of Proviso West signed a four-year, $62 million extension through the 2021-22 season.

The lesson is that you never know who might develop and what might transpire with playing time. The Bulls have an established foundation in Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. But a big part of the Bulls’ post-all-star break phase of the rebuild is taking as many rolls of the dice as they can. Guard Cam Payne, forward Noah Vonleh, center Cristiano Felicio might end up being place-holders or footnotes in the rebuild process. But the Bulls are going to give them — and other fringe players eventually — the chance to become their Robert Covington.

“You could put T.J. [McConnell] in the same mix. Those two guys are the poster children for what we hope to achieve in developing somebody and giving them opportunity,” Brown said.

“Robert had ability to shoot and then we really jumped him hard to guard and he bought in and he’s good people so he became a good two-way player. But never did we think, ‘Oh, yeah, those guys are going to be here forever.’ They fought for stuff and earned their right and now they are a huge part of our cultural fabric.”

Covington, 27, is averaging 12.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game and shooting 36.9 percent on three-pointers this season. He said he never considered the odds of sticking with the Sixers long term when he arrived — whatever those odds actually were. He just kept listening, learning and playing. The Sixers were 18-64 and 10-72 in his first two seasons. They are 30-25 and seventh in the Eastern Conference playoff standings entering Thurdsay night’s game.

“The way the team was going you never know what could have happened. A lot of guys played in uncertainty,” Covington said. “I had an idea I could be here long-term, but it’s just a matter of coming to work and [progressing]. I was very coachable and I took everything that coach helped me with — that’s what allowed me to transition. I learned from a coach who really had a lot of experience. That helped me out a lot.”

So while the main objective of tanking is to acquire difference-making top-5 drive picks like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the final 25 games are not just perfunctory for developmental players like Felicio, Payne, Vonleh and others who might be considered on the fringes of the rebuild. This is a chance for growth from within.

“They’re playing. They’re getting NBA minutes — it’s gold,” Brown said of players on a team in tank mode. “There is no price tag you can put on experience on an NBA cout and getting NBA minutes.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

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