LAS VEGAS — Corey Joseph left Vegas with the San Antonio Spurs’ Summer League team while still keeping close watch on perhaps the team’s last bit of offseason roster business, but not for the reason you might think.
“I’m watching it pretty close,” Joseph said of teammate Gary Neal, a restricted free agent who remains unsigned. “Gary is one of my close friends on the team. Hopefully he comes back. We hope we get him. That’s all I really want because Gary is a big piece of our team.”
All that might be true, but if the combo guard who has rewarded the Spurs for giving him a shot three years ago in Vegas, does return, then Joseph will again find himself in a tight minutes competition behind Tony Parker with Neal and 2009 second-round pick Nando de Colo.
Joseph, 21, last season famously phoned San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich asking to be assigned back to the club’s D-League affiliate in nearby Austin. Joseph figured he could either sit on the pine with the big team or play and improve with the minor-league club. It paid off as Joseph starting winning backcourt minutes late in the season while playing in just 28 games.
Neal emerged as Popovich’s top reserve behind Parker in the playoffs and Neal’s six 3-pointers and 24 points pushed the Spurs to a Game 3 victory over Miami in the NBA Finals. Neal scored just 12 points in the final three games, which might prove to be his last in a Spurs uniform.
When the club signed 6-foot-5 free agent veteran shooting guard Marco Belinelli, it seemed to signal that San Antonio — which did extend a qualifying offer of $1.1 million that prevented Neal from becoming an unrestricted free agent — likely would not match another team’s offer sheet.
Earlier this month, Neal was reportedly receiving offers from teams higher than the Spurs were willing to match. With July moving to a close and teams finalizing their rosters, Neal has yet to make a move.
“I feel like I’ve come a far way, but I know there’s still far to come, so I just keep on working countless hours at the gym because I know that’s what it takes,” Joseph said. “I don’t want to feel comfortable. The backup point guard spot, in my mind, is still open. We have a lot of great point guards on our team, so I’ve still got to prove myself.”
The battle for 2013-14 minutes started began in earnest in Summer League. He and De Colo both played four of the team’s five games and they finished with near-identical stats. Joseph averaged 10.3 ppg, 4.5 apg and 3.3 turnovers per game in 28.3 mpg. He shot 38.9 percent from the floor and 27.3 percent from 3-point range. De Colo, 26, averaged 11.3 ppg, 4.0 apg and 3.3 turnovers per game in 31.8 mpg. He shot 34 percent from the floor and 22.2 percent from beyond the arc.
A native of Toronto, Joseph played one season at Texas before the Spurs drafted him with the 29th overall pick in 2011. He’s played 57 total games with San Antonio. He will earn $1.1 million in 2013-14 and the Spurs hold a team option for the 2014-15 season.