It wasn’t a conversation Gregg Popovich was used to having, and certainly one he didn’t expect to happen at that moment but when second-year San Antonio Spurs point guard Cory Joseph phoned his coach one night after practice with an unusual request, Pop was all ears.
It was late-January and Popovich’s club had lost just seven games in the span of two months — business as usual for basketball’s gold-standard franchise. Joseph had been back and forth between the club and its D-League affiliate in nearby Austin, Texas, and though he cherished the experience learning under Pop and the Spurs core of future Hall of Famers, he was spending more and more time on the bench, averaging just over six minutes in the little playing time he was afforded.
“I really wasn’t playing at the time,” Joseph recalls after practice during the Finals, where the Spurs are currently tied 1-1 with the Miami Heat. “I was still travelling with the team, and I’d get a little 3-on-3 or 1-on-1 in during practice, but I felt like my conditioning was going down. I was coming in to workout, but it’s just not the same as a game.”
He had rehearsed the line over and over in his head, and when he dialed Popovich’s number and his coach answered the phone, Joseph didn’t hesitate: “I want to go back to the D-League.”
There was a pause on the other end as the coach processed the request, a rare self-demotion of sorts, from one of the most-coveted positions in the NBA — from a spot on the San Antonio Spurs bench to what amounts to the uncertainty of basketball’s minor league.
“Sure,” the coach responded in his typical trite manner.
“Pop thought it was a great idea,” says Joseph. “He was straight with me and told me ‘You probably won’t get an opportunity to play right now, so you might as well play somewhere. We’re not paying you for nothing.’”
For a club so adept at making the most of their draft picks and finding players who fit the mold it should come as no surprise that Cory Joseph is the perfect Spur.
The Pickering, ON native and 29th overall pick in the 2011 draft is making a name for himself based on hard work and defense, the kind of traits you’d expect from somebody who found his way deeper and deeper into Popovich’s circle of trust as the 2012-13 season progressed. And so when Tony Parker went down with an ankle injury in March, Pop thrust Joseph into the starting role, where he averaged more than 20 minutes in eight starts, guarding top point guards like Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and Steph Curry, as the Spurs went 6-2 in that stretch.
“It just kind of happened,” Joseph says of his improved role with the club. “Our team is based on defence — team defense and hustle, and that’s what I bring. That’s what the coaches have been asking of me since I got here, but it’s always been my approach to the game, too.”
During that eight-game stretch in March, Popovich took notice of his young guard.
“He’s just solid,” Popovich told reporters after Joseph committed zero turnovers handling the rock in a win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, “He’s scrappy and aggressive and he’s doing what we asked him to do.”
It’s been a wild ride for Joseph — a lifelong NBA and Raptors fan since Day 1 — playing alongside the legends he grew up watching. And in a league where situation means everything, Joseph understands the significance of landing on the Spurs, where not only would his game flourish under Popovich’s system, but he had the chance to learn from the best.
“Tony, being my position, he teaches me a lot, every practice. Tim (Duncan), Manu (Ginobili), and the coaching staff are teaching me all the time.”
And he’s gotten a firsthand understanding of the most notorious coach in basketball today, a man as famous for his dry wit as he is for his equal treatment of players 1 through 15, regardless of stature or salary.
“You hear stories before coming here, you know, that the veterans will get yelled at as much as the rookies,” Joseph says. “Shoot, he might even yell at them more! Ever since I got here, he’s held Tim, Tony, and Manu just as accountable as he held us. It really sent a message to the whole team that it’s not about individuals. Everyone is accountable, and I mean everyone.”
Not a bad lesson for a kid to learn in his first days on the job.
The NBA Developmental League is a strange bird. Established in 2001 as the NBA’s farm system — a breeding ground for young talent and a stage for aging hopefuls to finally make their big league dreams a reality — the D-League hasn’t quite taken off as planned.
Aside from stashed prospects like Joseph, Josh Selby, or Christian Eyenga, D-League rosters are a weird blend of NBA washouts (Sean Williams, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Melvin Ely), failed college stars (Demitris Nichols, Bill Walker, Luke Harangody), guys with extremely cool names (Rusty LaRue, Latavius Williams, Von Wafer), and at least one certified headcase (Delonte West). There have been success stories (Amir Johnson, Matt Barnes, and Joseph’s teammate Danny Green, to name three), but most D-League stories are of the rags-to-riches-to-rags variety. It’s a league where players who are called up to the NBA are sent off by D-League coaches with the warning: “Don’t come back.”
Basically, it’s not the kind of place you voluntarily demote yourself to. Which is why, though he was on board with Joseph’s decision, Popovich held some reservation. “You worry,” the coach said shortly after Joseph asked to be sent down, “about the self-image of the kid and about his confidence.”
That’s not how Joseph read the situation.
“It took a lot of confidence to make that decision,” he says, knowing that every trip to the D-League is like putting another bullet in the chamber in the NBA’s version of Russian roulette. “Some people go down to the D-League and look at it like a bad thing. And sure, anytime you’re on an NBA contract and playing in the D-League you should be mad to an extent, you should get upset. Obviously it was a little different in my situation. I had been sent down before when I didn’t ask to go down, but it’s a business. You learn to be able to live with it, just put your head down and play hard. It motivated me to work harder.”
Despite playing less than 30 games for the Toros, Joseph was named an all-star and earned 2nd team All-D-League honors.
“I know it’s not the NBA,” he says, “but those guys in Austin run a great program and the coaching staff is good. It’s what I needed.”
Joseph will likely be getting more burn running from his spot near the end of the bench to the sidelines to greet his veteran teammates than he will on the floor as Popovich further tightens his rotation as the Finals progress. But here’s betting this season — the decision to accept and seek short-term pain for long-term gain in the D-League, his brief time running the show for the best franchise in professional sports, and his crash course in gunning for a championship — is the turning point for the point guard. He may not know when, but Joseph knows it’ll be paying dividends soon enough.
“You never know,” he says, “when opportunity will present itself, but when it does I know I’m doing my work and I’ll be ready. Sometimes you just have to wait for your time.”