Most coaches would work their way down the depth chart when their star point guard goes down with an injury, promoting the backup to starter and the third string to backup. Not Gregg Popovich, who (as Fred Silva noted in yesterday's piece) elected to start Cory Joseph in just his second game after being called up from the Austin Toros after Tony Parker went down with a sprained ankle.
On Sunday night, in his first start this season, CoJo played some impressive basketball in limited minutes, showing us why he could be a viable option as Tony's backup during the playoffs. Check out Matthew Tynan's full recap of the action here. In just 18 minutes, Joseph scored 8 points on 3-5 shooting, with 4 assists, 2 steals, and only 1 TO. Certainly nothing to cause you to jump out of your seat, but nonetheless efficient. More important than his numbers though, was his comfort level in facilitating the half court and fast break offense and defending two good point guards in Jose Calderon and Brandon Knight.
Cory Joseph brings something that neither Nando de Colo, Patty Mills, nor Gary Neal bring to the court: the ability to incorporate his skill set and hustle into the Spurs' team defensive system. While it's true that the Pistons are a poor offensive team (ranking 20th in the league in offensive efficiency) Jose Calderon and Brandon Knight are good point guards, and Joseph did well matched up with each of them.
Calderon certainly didn't have a bad night scoring, posting 14 points on 6-10 shooting in 28 minutes, a significant increase over his season average. Six of those points came when Joseph was guarding him, on two first-quarter triples. One was well contested by Joseph. The other was open, but largely because of a play that was broken when Cory went after a loose ball which was recovered by Brandon Knight. Knight hit Calderon with the quick assist before Joseph could recover.
Calderon is rarely valued as a scorer; his passing ability is his best offensive weapon. In last night's game he was limited to only 2 assists, more than 5 fewer than his season average of 7.5. Ginobili spent plenty of time guarding him as well, but Joseph was able to hang with Calderon early in the game and fight over the many screens set by Detroit's bigs. As Sean Elliot pointed out, Cory took some physical abuse, but he remained relentless, staying attached to Calderon, Brandon Knight, or Will Bynum off the ball and cutting off their passing lanes.
CoJo matches the speed of Patty Mills on the defensive end, but he improves upon Patty's example by rarely overplaying his man, instead choosing good position which forces his man into help defense. At one point, about the five minute mark in the second quarter, Cory was defending Bynum and slid upcourt forcing Bynum towards the corner, where Bynum, upon encountering the imposing Red Mamba, cut back left towards Cory, who was waiting to pluck the ball from his hands. (Unfortunately, he then forced a pass upcourt to Kawhi in an attempt to initiate a fast break, but the pass was stolen for his only turnover.) This was one of several incidents where his positioning forced his man into bad spots and bad decisions.
Overall, Joseph showed excellent hustle, pressuring his man and going for several 50-50 balls, without overplaying and conceding open lanes to the basket or easy assists. The defensive skills he displayed Sunday night were assuredly an upgrade over those of Gary, Nando, or Patty.
For those of you who don't pay attention the D-League, you should know that Joseph has been very impressive as the starting PG for the Austin Toros, averaging 19.4 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 5.5 APG, and 1.9 SPG with a +20.4 Efficiency rating. His service as floor general and facilitator for the Toros has paid dividends, as he certainly appeared more comfortable in his decision making when running the point for the Spurs. His stat line shows 4 assists, but he was directly involved in more Spurs points than that statistic would suggest. He had a few hockey assists, and even one great pass to Tiago which should have been a dunk. Tiago instead chose a reverse layup (no surprise there) and failed to convert.
He opened up the second half with two impressive plays, the first an assist to Kawhi on the fast break for a dunk, the second a hockey assist which found Tim Duncan via Tiago Splitter in a beautiful passing sequence. Two minutes later, following his second steal of the night, he converted an and-1 on a fast break feed from Kawhi, making an excellent finish despite a foul from Kyle Singler which sent him to the floor. And again just two minutes later he found Danny Green for a corner three on a fast break, making the excellent decision to pass instead of taking an off-balance layup he most likely would have missed.
In November, CoJo would not have made these decisions. His time in the D-League has prepared him for this unforeseen moment, as his being called up now carries much more significance than it did before Tony's injury. Last night, Pop gave CoJo the reins to the starting unit, and he did not disappoint. In fact, in his 18 minutes on the floor, Cory Joseph did more to impress me personally than either of our other three options have in a single night all season. His all around good performance was almost like a fusion of all the other's positives: Patty's hustle, Nando's facilitating, Gary's shooting. With his significant offensive improvement courtesy of his time with the Toros, CoJo is beginning to state his case as a playoff backup PG. It is a one game sample, and I still think it is highly unlikely considering Pop's mistrust of rookies, and especially if Neal is healthy. Regardless, Cory Joseph certainly has a future in the NBA, whether for the Spurs or another team. Assuming Pop lets him start in the next few games, we will get a better grasp of his ability against higher quality opponents in the Bulls, Blazers, and Thunder. Maybe he can cause us to miss Tony just a little bit less over the next 2-4 weeks.