By Brandon Apter, Sports Talk Philly editor
When Brett Brown was introduced as the new Philadelphia 76ers coach back in August 2013, he said something that resonates with Sixers fans today.
"Can you imagine if we can get this thing right? Really? With the culture and the history this city has and the pride and toughness this city has? I think this is a very high calculated chance."
At this point, it's hard to think anything other than this: we got this thing right. Two years removed from a 10-win season, the Philadelphia 76ers are moving on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2012. They have a plethora of young talent highlighted by Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric and a nice mix of veteran shooters in JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova.
Two guys on the team not listed above suffered through the worst and are now experiencing some of the best times of their careers. Nearly 80 players have played in a game for the Sixers since the 2013-14 season, the first true year of Sam Hinkie's regime, but two players have made it through the fray. Both Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell survived the difficult years of The Process and now find themselves in the thick of a playoff run that many believe could end up with a trip to at least the Eastern Conference Finals. As for the journey it took to get here, it's been a roller coaster for both guys, but if you've followed the Sixers through the darker years of The Process, you know this duo always gave their all, no matter what the score and no matter what the roster was.
"That's a hard fought 10-72 by the way," McConnell said with a smile after Tuesday's win.
McConnell's story is a good one and he dove into it during an episode of JJ Redick's podcast in February. T.J. was the last invite to the 2015 NBA Draft Combine. While studying for finals in his senior year at Arizona, he got a call from his agent that he had to pay his way to Chicago for the combine. In case someone dropped out, he was going to get a chance. Luckily for McConnell, someone dropped out and he got an opportunity to show NBA teams what he was made of at that time. While most prospects met with multiple teams for nearly 2-3 hours, McConnell met with just one team – the Atlanta Hawks. His name wasn't called on draft night, but just a few hours after the conclusion of the draft, McConnell got a call from Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown. The rest is history.
"It's hard to put into words, really, to go from 10 wins to where we're at right now. You gotta give credit to everyone that's been involved in the front office, the players that have played here and the players we have now. "
No one really ever thought McConnell would crack the roster, but he did. Even after Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons were drafted, McConnell still played his way onto the floor and he's been a delight to watch, especially given his remarkable journey to the draft combine alone.
As for Covington, he received a late invite to the 2013 NBA Draft Combine but never heard his name called on draft night. His agent had a deal set with the Houston Rockets though, partially guaranteed, which landed Covington in their G-League mix at the time. He got a few call-ups to the Rockets during the 2013-14 season, getting the opportunity to practice with NBA players and get coached by NBA coaching staffs. Covington was waived at the start of training camp ahead of the 2014-15 season and ended up getting picked first overall in the G-League draft by the Pistons affiliate. Two weeks later, Covington got a call from Hinkie the Sixers, who were at that time about to begin the second year of The Process.
“Everything Sam Hinkie did during that time unfolded the way he pictured it,” Covington said in an exclusive interview with The Undefeated. “People always say, ‘Trust the process.’ He really laid the foundation perfectly.”
Although there was significant roster turnover throughout The Process, Covington always found himself getting consistent playing time and now, just months after signing a four-year contract extension, he's seen the team come full circle after punching their ticket to the second round.
“I’ve been through a lot, so this feeling is great,” Covington told The Undefeated. “We keep playing the way we’ve been playing, we have endless possibilities."
When the clock hit zero on Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center, there was rejoice, excitement and emotion flowing through the building with many bearing witness to something special building in Philadelphia.
"It's been a long journey. You can't leave the fans out of it. They've stuck by our side throughout everything and they've been hungry for a good playoff team since A.I. probably. That's what we're trying to give them."