Cory Joseph spent much of his first two NBA seasons wearing out a path along I-35 in south Texas. He’d been drafted by the Spurs in 2011, but got most of his playing time in the NBA D-League with the Austin Toros.
Last season in the Spurs march to the championship Joseph was part of the band, but stayed mostly in the rhythm section as Patty Mills stepped into the spotlight with his Finals play.
Now with Mills on the shelf through at least the first half of the season following shoulder surgery, the 23-year-old Joseph will enter the season as the clear backup to Tony Parker at point guard.
“Every time I go out on the court, I look at it as an opportunity,” said Joseph, a 23-year-old Texas-ex entering his fourth NBA season. “All I can do is prepare the best I can for when game time comes.”
The truth is Joseph gets the job almost by default. There’s only one other point guard to training camp and, in order to keep the rookie Bryce Cotton, the Spurs would have to cut one of the 15 guaranteed contracts already on the roster.
“He’s done well in that role in the past, so I look forward to him doing that again,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
While he played in 68 games last season — averaging 5.0 points, 1.7 assists and 13.8 minutes per game — Joseph’s time diminished during the playoff run (right as Mills’ star was rising against the Miami Heat in The Finals).
The Spurs feel comfortable with Joseph as the only pure backup point because they also have Manu Ginobili to be the ball handler/director of the offense with the second unit.
In February 2013, when Parker was injured, Joseph became the Spurs’ starting point guard. In his first five starts, averaged 8.8 points and 2.6 assists while shooting 58.6 percent.
“I feel comfortable now on the team and in the offense and the system and I’ll play any role and do whatever they ask of me,” Joseph said. “I’m not looking at it like ‘this is my big chance.’ It’s always your chance every day you come to practice and show that you are capable of doing your job. That’s what you want to do — prove to the coach that he can trust you.”
With his aging core of Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, no coach in the league relies on his bench more than Popovich. He kept so tight a rein on minutes last season that the Spurs became the first team in NBA history to not have a single player average 30 minutes per game. That makes those backup roles even more critical.
Joseph spent the summer working his shot and his overall game, knowing that he’d be needed to do more. The opportunity comes at a time when Joseph — like Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard — is eligible for a contract extension by the Oct. 31 deadline. If he is not signed to a new deal by then, he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer.
“I have an agent and that’s his job,” Joseph said.
Joseph claims won’t even won’t be the least bit distracted by what could happen.
“I don’t think about that stuff,” he said. “I just play.”
This is his chance.