It isn't every day when an NBA player—smothered with questions about his NBA readiness from the start, and whose career has been spent predominantly in the NBA Developmental League—suddenly becomes an integral contributor on a championship contender.
At least, this isn't the case for most NBA franchises. But in San Antonio, Cinderella stories are customary; nearly every roster member has risen beyond expectations. Next in line is Cory Joseph, a third-year point guard whose previous claim to fame had been his success in the D-League.
In 2013-14, however, the promising guard will have no problem making an impact at the true professional level, where his skill set and dedication will allow him to become one of the San Antonio Spurs' most valuable reserves.
An Improbable Journey
Cory Joseph is no Jeremy Lin, who instantaneously became the most renowned man in New York after bouncing around from bench to bench after going undrafted.
Joseph's journey is also far less impossible than that of, say, Chris Copeland, who struggled in college, the D-League and overseas before enjoying a successful rookie season at the ripe age of 28.
However, his journey has seen its fair share of low points, along with numerous decisions that could have altered his career path entirely.
First and foremost, one cannot highlight Cory Joseph without questioning his most scrutinized decision. After posting an unspectacular stat line in his first collegiate season, Joseph declared for the draft—a mistake that prevented immediate success, though it may very well pay off in the long run.
The former-Texas point guard entered the league raw. He wasn't polished offensively, and his intangibles didn't stand out from his peers. Aside from pure talent, there was little reason for Joseph to believe he was ready for the next level.
Scouts saw this too, predicting that the young man would fall into the second round. The San Antonio Spurs, however, saw something they liked, snatching the Longhorn with the 29th overall selection, an addition that wasn't applauded initially.
Though Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford and the rest of the front office saw potential in the budding guard, they too recognized his inexperience and took the necessary precautions to ensure his immediate development. Like many a green prospect before him, Joseph spent his rookie campaign in the D-League. Aside from a handful of unsubstantial appearances with San Antonio, Joseph stayed with the Austin Toros, where he took his first steps toward maturation.
The beginning of the 2012-13 season sang a similar tune as Joseph struggled to leave Austin. He was—especially in such a crowded backcourt—nothing more than a young player whose existence was known solely by diehard Spurs fans.
His first major headline—though not publicized until later in the season—involved a request that one wouldn't expect from a player who had not found an opportunity to make the jump. After being called up from the Toros, Joseph pulled an unprecedented move.
Per Ken Rodriguez of Spurs.com, the young guard understood what was best for his career. Determined to not make the same mistake by prematurely going to the next level, Joseph called Popovich and requested a return to the D-League.
Joseph explained his decision later, telling Rodriguez, "I could be sitting on the bench in San Antonio, or I could be getting better."
And he did get better. After his stint with the Toros, Joseph returned to the Spurs, where he assumed starting point guard duties after an injury sidelined Tony Parker.
From there, his statistics remained unremarkable, though he did post 8.8 points per game during his time as a starter. The rest of the season featured Joseph backing up Parker in San Antonio's point guard platoon, though the former first-round pick ran away with the reserve role when he was featured as the primary backup in the playoffs.
He's not a star, and there is no such thing as "Joseph-sanity," but the rising Canadian learned from his mistakes, using his initial inexperience to help him gain exposure to the point where he'll find himself with a larger role in the upcoming campaign.
The Next Step
Following his involvement on the big stage in last year's playoffs, one can assume that Joseph's D-League career is all but over—unless he elects to mature even more.
But as Joseph will receive legitimate playing time soon enough, its time for the next chapter.
Joseph will indeed begin the season alongside a handful of talented guards. Marco Belinelli joins Manu Ginobili as a swingman, and Nando de Colo and Patty Mills are back to fight for a rotation spot.
All four players can handle the ball.
However, while Belinelli and Ginobili can perform the point-guard duties, they will have to provide depth at the shooting guard and small forward positions first. Joseph's primary competition will be De Colo and Mills.
Both of these players have commanded the lead reserve role at some point, though Joseph did so last. He's also unquestionably the best option at the 1.
Mills is a fine performer, but he isn't a point guard by choice. He's far better suited for the shooting guard position, as he excels when given the opportunity to play alongside another ball-handler. His shooting is by far his best facet. Beyond that, he's average at best. Defensively, he has made a name for himself through speed and peskiness alone. His handling and distributing are anything but eye-catching.
De Colo is the complete opposite. Given the size of a shooting guard, De Colo grew up playing European basketball, and his NBA game reflects his upbringing. His shooting ability is nothing spectacular, and he hasn't displayed an ability to attack the rim. He's a true point guard, one who passes both efficiently and with flair, though his actual ability to run the floor hasn't drawn very much praise.
In Joseph, you see the ideal mix of the two, alongside a handful of other valuable assets. Joseph isn't a shooting threat like Mills, though his shot has improved vastly since his rookie season.
He cannot be left alone from deep and has the ability to confidently knock down a jumper from mid-range. He isn't lethal, but far from inept. He's most effective when driving, as he's shown a fearlessness and an overall ability that hasn't been demonstrated from the other two candidates.
He also falls between Mills and De Colo in his distributing duties. He isn't a top-notch passer, but he certainly holds his own. He isn't flashy or born to assist like De Colo, but he is a true point guard. His distributing abilities are sufficient, and his ability to run the floor as a dual threat makes him far more effective than the others.
His most valuable attribute—and where he completely eclipses his competition—is in his defensive effort. Even more so than Parker, Joseph has emerged as a tenacious on-ball defender as well as someone who can find his way into passing lanes.
His defensive abilities allow for more offensive opportunities, which can be crucial in deciding a game. He's refined on that end, and if he has shown improvement as a shooter, Joseph should undoubtedly be given the top reserve role.
What to Expect?
As mentioned before, there's no "Joseph-sanity" in store. Even after a very successful summer FIBA campaign—one in which he scored, assisted and rebounded at a high level in a leadership role—Joseph isn't destined to take the NBA by storm.
But what he will do is make an impact.
Especially on the defensive end, Joseph will help the Spurs frequently and in diverse ways. You can't expect him to light up the stat sheet, but you can count on a valuable and consistent effort when in. He isn't going to hurt the team by any means, as his ability to score and orchestrate makes him an offensive threat. His defensive prowess should also allow for the young man to make a statement.
Especially when Parker—who will be given rest at times—finds himself watching from the sideline, Joseph will slyly make the difference that could put the Spurs over the top.
When they need added defense, Joseph should be ready to hop in and contribute. What they need is not an All-Star performance; all that is asked is that Parker's contributions aren't missed too much when the substitution is made.
Maybe in the future Joseph will accept a leading role. For now, though, he'll be the Spurs' secret weapon, ready to take advantage of every opportunity on both ends.
And if his name draws recognition beyond San Antonio's borders, then Joseph—the very player whose career was salvaged by a request to play down—will have made it big.