Joseph’s homecoming more than just a good story

Cory Joseph is only the second Canadian to play for the Toronto Raptors. (Hannah Foslien/AP)

Cory Joseph left home young. He had just turned 17 years old when he left his mom, brother and two older sisters to chase his dreams of making it big in basketball.

He enrolled in Findlay Prep, then a little-known basketball program attached to a private school in suburban Las Vegas that planned to develop a pipeline of talent that would supply Division I schools and beyond.

Joseph had his eyes focused on the beyond. The kid who grew up duelling his brother Devoe in the driveway in Pickering, Ont., wanted to play in the NBA and was willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

It wasn’t easy. I remember meeting him in Las Vegas early in his Grade 12 season and he still sounded like a teenager who missed the comforts of home.

"I like it," he said of the school and basketball journey he’d undertaken. "But at the same time you miss all your friends back at home, your mom, your family – all the people at home, you know what I mean?

"You miss 'em bad; you miss 'em real bad. Because you don’t want to leave your family, but it’s part of growing up you have to get out of your mom’s house at some point."

He won’t have to miss his mom, Connie, anymore. Cory Joseph is coming home as the latest free agent signing by the Toronto Raptors.

At about 11:15 Sunday night Joseph announced to his 61,700 Twitter followers that he was leaving the San Antonio Spurs in free agency to sign with Toronto.

It was a simple message for an athlete who is known for his no-nonsense approach, but it spoke volumes about how far Canadian basketball has come and where it’s going. Joseph will be just the second Canadian to ever play for the Raptors, following Jamaal Magloire who suited up for one season at the end of his career.

He left as part of the first wave of elite Canadian basketball players who were convinced rightly or wrongly that if they wanted to make it to the top of the sport they needed to head to the United States as teenagers.

For Joseph it couldn’t have worked out better. He won national recognition at Findlay and a scholarship to the University of Texas, and in 2011 became the first Canadian guard to be drafted in the first round of the NBA draft since Steve Nash when the San Antonio Spurs took him 29th overall. He learned his craft in one of the most respected organizations in any sport and has a championship ring to show for it.

The difference is that while Magloire was an outlier, Joseph represents the front edge of the wedge. Masai Ujiri has always said he won’t put a passport ahead of talent when building his team, but the number and quality of Canadians coming into the NBA – eight first-round picks in the past five years with more coming – means that recruiting homegrown players could provide the Raptors a competitive advantage going forward.

Calls to the Raptors GM and Joseph’s agent Rich Paul weren’t immediately returned but Joseph has been on the Raptors radar for years now. It’s believed they tried to trade for him twice but were rebuffed by San Antonio.

According to ESPN’s Chris Broussard the Raptors let their money do the talking, with Joseph signing a four-year deal worth $30-million, a huge jump in salary for a career backup who has earned just $5.3 million total in his four NBA seasons.

Is it worth it?

The Raptors love Joseph’s defensive acumen. By their analysis he immediately becomes their best perimeter defender. Moreover they love the humility he brings to the job and his simple passion for his craft. He made a believer out of Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich when – as he was struggling for playing time as a rookie – he asked to be sent down to the NBA D-League to get some run.

But the Raptors see upside as well. The term of his deal extends past that of all-star Kyle Lowry’s, who will likely opt out of his contract two summers from now. While no one within the organization is prepared to declare Joseph ready to push Lowry as a starter, the dollars and term they gave him suggest they are betting that he’s still improving and could provide them an option there in time.

His calling card for the moment is the 14 games he started this season for San Antonio when Tony Parker was injured. Joseph shot 56.2 per cent from the floor including 44 per cent from the three-point line while averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 rebounds a game in 36 minutes of playing time.

Was that a blip or a suggestion that there is more where that came from? If it’s the latter – and Joseph’s stints running the point for the Canadian national team suggest it is – the Raptors will have one of the best point guard tandems in the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors had targeted Joseph all along. This summer when it was rumoured that Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge was going to jump to the Spurs in free agency the Raptors saw that outcome as the best possible consolation prize if their own pursuit of Aldridge was unsuccessful.

It was believed that signing Aldridge would force San Antonio to relinquish their rights to Joseph to create space under the NBA’s salary cap, and sure enough that's what happened.

The Spurs and Aldridge reached an agreement on Friday and the Spurs renounced Joseph Sunday afternoon. By Sunday night the deal with Toronto was done.

The signing will largely conclude a significant and costly makeover of a team that was meekly swept from the playoffs by the Washington Wizards in April. The marquee signing was DeMarre Carroll, a hard-nosed defender who played for a 60-win team in Atlanta and who will play small forward for four years in Toronto at the price of $60 million. Joseph will bring the championship ring he won in San Antonio to be the primary backup for Lowry at point guard although he can back up DeMar DeRozan at the two as well. The Raptors also are expected to sign long-armed shot-blocking specialist Bismack Biyombo for $6 million over two years as frontcourt depth.

Gone are Amir Johnson (who signed for $24 million over two years with the Boston Celtics) and Lou Williams, who won the Sixth Man Award with the Raptors and parlayed that into a $21-million deal over three years with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The moves make the Raptors a longer, more tenacious team defensively and gives them quality depth in their backcourt.

It also leaves them with some questions up front -- replacing Johnson at power forward will be a challenge given the dearth of quality at the position on the free agent market. Pat Patterson will fill Johnson’s role now with Ujiri likely looking to add more frontcourt quality via the trade market.

But those are concerns for later in the summer. The moment is about one of Canadian basketball’s favourite sons coming home. Basketball fans can allow themselves to dream about a roster stacked with homegrown talent, headlined by the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Tristan Thompson.

That day may be more fanciful than real, but someone had to be first and that someone is Joseph. He left as a boy and felt the pangs of homesickness, settling them by the belief that his sacrifice of time with friends and family would take him somewhere special.

It certainly did. Cory Joseph left as a boy. He comes home as a Toronto Raptor.