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How Ex-Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson laid the foundation for Robert Covington’s career

As an undrafted rookie, Robert Convington leaned on ex-Houston Rockets lead assistant Kelvin Sampson.

Detroit Pistons v Houston Rockets Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Robert Covington’s first four games with the Houston Rockets is a complete 180 from his first stint in 2014.

While averaging 31.8 minutes since he was acquired by the Rockets a week ago, Covington has proved he was worth the fuss leading up to the trade deadline. The 6’9” forward has registered 12.3 points while shooting 40.5% from the field, to go along with 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 1.8 blocks. In all, Covington’s arrival in its totality has given the Rockets their most coveted 3-and-D player since Trevor Ariza.

Although he has made a name for himself around the league, Covington’s journey back to Houston is a testament to how far he has come throughout his career.

When he signed as an undrafted rookie out of Tennessee State, Covington spent most of his time with the Rockets’ G-League affiliate team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and appeared in only seven games, averaging a little under five minutes (4.9 min) of playing time.

But it was during his rookie season where Covington developed a close-knit relationship with then head-assistant coach, Kelvin Sampson, who he credited for laying the foundation for his NBA career.

“Overall that year was very big for me. He [ Kelvin Sampson] taught me a lot and helped me gain a better understanding of the game. I had the opportunity to learn a lot from him and grow as a player; it gave me a better feel for the game.” — Covington

Before leading the University of Houston’s Men Basketball team to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, Sampson served as an assistant to Kevin McHale for three seasons (2011–2014) on the Rockets’ coaching staff.

While McHale was stuck with the daunting task of meshing the talents of James Harden and Dwight Howard on the court, Sampson took on the responsibility to help the development of the Rockets’ young core due to his teaching background as a college coach.

Sampson spent the majority of the season teaching Covington and Isaiah Canaan how to transition their games from the college to the NBA level. For a player who finished his collegiate career ranked seventh on Tennessee State’s all-time scoring list accumulating 1,749 points (14.8 ppg) in four years, one of the greatest lessons Sampson instilled in the at-the-time 23-year-old rookie was the ability to play off the ball, and to value his on-court effort at the highest level.

“I believe all rookies need somebody to coach them hard. Someone that will help them make that transition from the collegiate to the pro-level. During Summer League and Training Camp, I stayed on Robert to not imitate James, Dwight, and Chandler [Parsons], but to work twice as hard coming from Tennessee State to make it in this league. The message I instilled in him was, ‘Don’t try to fit in, but stand out with your effort.’” — Sampson

But even while sharing the practice court with two All-Star players, the skill set that would later help Covington establish himself in the league was on full display as a rookie.

“There are two things Robert was always able to do, shoot and defend. His shot was always pure, and I knew he had a chance to be a really good shooter. And with his size and length, he could guard one through four off the dribble. Then he was big and strong enough to defend the five down on the low-post. I knew back then this would be his niche, to develop into a corner three-point shooter and have the capability to guard the other team’s best perimeter player.” — Sampson

During the Rockets’ 116-105 win over the Boston Celtics, the foundation Sampson laid in place for Covington nearly six years ago came back in full circle Tuesday night. Inside the Toyota Center, Covington’s hard work and effort were on full display, as he registered 12 points, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks, 3 steals and 3 assists in Houston’s big win.

The same hustle and defensive tenacity Covington has displayed throughout his career can be seen on a nightly basis from Sampson’s No. 20 Houston Cougars — a college team currently ranked first in the American Athletic Conference with a 20-5 record.

And despite having some of the most talented student-athletes in Quentin Grimes, Nate Hinton and Fabian White Jr., the message Sampson shared with Covington in 2014 remains the same today.

“The biggest thing I teach all my players is effort. When you come from a place like Tennessee State or just a smaller college, you want to make your mark with your effort, and that starts with defense.” — Sampson.