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Call And Answer

Robert Covington relying on D-League experience to ready himself for next level

HOUSTON - If Robert Covington were not a night owl before, he has no choice but to become one now. What other conclusion can be reached after watching the way he followed up a late-night workout session with Dwight Howard by exploding for 22 second-half points on his way to securing a come-from-behind win and the accompanying MVP trophy in Saturday afternoon’s D-League All-Star game?

“I actually had some help last night by working out with my big brother Dwight Howard and that’s kind of what got me in a good rhythm for today,” the 23-year-old said after pouring in a game-high 33 points in just 20 minutes of action as the Futures team rallied from a 16-point deficit en route to securing a 145-142 victory.

Covington starred in the event simply by doing what he has done in the D-league all season, showcasing his all-around skill set while running the floor, knocking down 3s, hitting the glass and instinctively putting himself in the right position to make plays on both ends of the floor. His innate feel for the game is what prompted the Rockets to rapidly target him when he went undrafted last summer, as did his enviable length, athleticism and sweet shooting stroke. And he’s put those attributes to good use with Houston’s D-League affiliate in the Rio Grande Valley, racking up more than 21 points and nine rebounds per game.

While the intrinsic talent oozing within that wiry frame has obviously helped propel him to early pro success, so too has his perpetually upbeat and up-for-anything attitude that led him to tag along with Howard when the eight-time All-Star extended an offer to hit the gym for a post-midnight training session Friday at the University of New Orleans campus. Covington is one of those splendid souls who seems to live life with a smile forever fixed on his face while simultaneously possessing a burning desire to make the most of every ounce of potential he can coax from his 6-9, 210-pound physique.

That approach has made him a favorite of teammates and coaches, both in Houston and RGV, and it has also helped him embrace the elevator ride that has shuttled him back and forth between both locales multiple times this season. He knows the D-League experience has already made him a better player and he’s well aware of the significant role it played in the development of Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas – two second-year players who parlayed playing time with the Vipers during their rookie seasons into valuable contributing roles with the Rockets in year two.

“I talk to TJ about his experience and it’s definitely been a good thing,” says Covington. “He said he progressed very well [while with the Vipers] and he said don’t go down there and lose focus on why you’re there. He told me to continue to work because you’re going down there to play significant minutes so you’re able to get more repetitions than you are up top. He said don’t stop working, push myself every day and don’t lose sight of the big picture.

“(The Rockets have) told me how much I’ve progressed and how much I’ve gotten better since I’ve been with RGV. I’ve taken my game to another level because I’ve got that confidence that I didn’t have at the beginning of preseason. For me to have those reps definitely helped me out.”

To be sure, he’s not done improving, and his days on the elevator likely aren’t over yet, either. The Rockets have their eyes on a deep playoff run, and wide-eyed rookies aren’t often a part of that equation. But if recent history is any indicator, an opportunity of some sort may well present itself during the season’s second half. It happened for Jones and D-Mo last year. Should a similar scenario unfold this season, Howard believes Covington will answer the call.

“I think he can contribute,” Howard says. “He’s a great shooter. He’s long, he’s wiry, he can play defense and he’s pretty strong for his position.

“I just tell him to continue to work hard. It’s a tough road to be in the NBA and to stay there. He’s a young guy and he’s got a lot of room to grow. He practices hard and things will fall into place for him. I always tell the younger guys that hard work pays off. It may not pay off when you want it to or when other people want it to but it’s going to come in at the right time.”

For now, there’s no telling when that time may be. It could come this month or next. It might not be until next season begins. This much, however, seems clear: No matter when the call arrives, be it first thing in the morning or in the wee hours of the night, Robert Covington will be ready and willing to make the absolute most of the opportunity.