Cory Joseph just finished his turn with team Canada in the FIBA Americas tournament with averages of 16.1 points, 5.5 boards and 4.4 assists. Keep in mind FIBA games only run for 40 minutes, so those numbers are even bigger than you'd think. He played the second most minutes per game in the tournament, shot very well and was among the leaders in all statistical categories -- yes, including rebounding. As a point guard. It's hard to imagine Joseph having a better tournament.
And it might mean absolutely nothing as far as his career with the Spurs.
The inevitably misleading FIBA performances
The problem inherent to extrapolating international performance into NBA production is well known by now. When players compete for their National Team, they often have completely different roles than the one they fill for their NBA team. They might do great over the summer playing a different position with more responsibility against lesser competition. But when they are required to adjust back to league play, they struggle with the same aspects they had trouble with before. We've seen a great example of this with Patty Mills and his performance in the Olympics.
Mills excited Spurs fans with his stats and ended up leading the tournament in scoring. But being a high minutes, volume shooter did nothing to help Patty Mills prepare to play off the bench in short bursts, and spotting up behind the arc as a shooting guard for Australia didn't prepare him to run an offense.
There's also the fact that FIBA ball is played differently. For example, FIBA allows zone defenses, meaning a big man can stay in the paint for as long as he wants, which severely reduces room to drive for the guards. This forces teams to adjust, and they will usually do so with an entirely different strategy -- on both ends of the floor -- from the NBA team the players are part of.
That obviously doesn't mean it's impossible to take anything away from FIBA performances. It just means we have to be very aware that great stats won't translate unless they were achieved playing a role similar to the one the player will be asked to fill in the league. Specific things -- like defensive awareness, rebounding or spot up shooting -- translate well, but great statistical performances are not accurate harbingers of NBA stardom.
With that out of the way, let's see how Cory did.
Cory Joseph's performance
I could only catch a couple of team Canada's games, and both were both losses, against Venezuela and Argentina.
Against Venezuela, Joseph, and the whole team really, struggled on offense throughout the game resulting in Canada trailing by nine coming into the fourth quarter. Then, led by Cory who scored eight of his 14 points in the period, the Canadians rallied late and made it a game, but it wasn't enough. Venezuela played a very physical style of defense and took advantage of some horrid shooting from the Canadians to pull out the important win.
As I mentioned, Cory played well against Argentina. He started out hot, carving the vertically challenged Argentine defense en route to a seven point first quarter. After a quiet second quarter he would go on to control the pace and score eight points in the third but the Canadians couldn't hold an Argentine team enjoying a fantastic stretch of play by Luis Scola. With Canada now trailing after leading for most of the game, Joseph and Andrew Nicholson misguidedly tried to carry the team, scoring all of the team’s points in the fourth, but ended up stagnating the offense in the process.
From what I've seen and read about his performance throughout the tournament, Cory did a good job of balancing his scoring with his playmaking and, for the most part, he didn't force things. He used great screens by the imposing Canadian bigs to free himself to pull the trigger from mid-range, hitting those shots at a high rate. Whenever he could, he would turn on the jets and drive past his defender but he struggled a bit finishing at the rim. He wasn't a particularly creative playmaker, partially because Canada is a pretty structured team that discourages improvisation, and they don't use the pick and roll as a primary weapon. But he got the team into its sets, drove and dished when the opportunity was there, and made good entry passes to the post. The offense ran significantly better with him at the helm.
Perhaps the most encouraging signs came on defense, where Cory showed great awareness and the same old determination we've seen him display in the past when guarding his man. He used his speed and long arms to stay with players or funnel them to his bigs and he didn't gamble. His leadership was great as well, usually calling plays and calming teammates after questionable calls. He had no problem taking big shots and did a good job of controlling the pace on a Canadian team that was averse to running.
Can it translate into a breakout year with the Spurs?
I very much doubt it. Cory won't be on the court as much as he was with team Canada and so far he hasn't showed the ability to immediately impact a game, preferring instead to pick and choose moments to take over. He won't likely have the green light to pull up off the dribble from mid-range after a ball screen, and he will not have the ball in his hands as much with the Spurs. His play in FIBA Americas was reminiscent of his D-League performances in that he was one of the best players not only on his team but in the entire competition. But that's not going to be the case when NBA games resume.
If his off-the-dribble, mid-range shooting stroke is sustainable, it certainly expands his arsenal, but the key for Joseph on offense remains his spot up shooting, especially from behind the three point line. Cory has the ball handling and BBIQ to be a solid floor general and his defense is adequate. It's hard to see him improve his finishing ability significantly or become a creative play-maker any time soon, but if he manages to be a threat while spotting up, he could make a huge impact for the Spurs next season. Unfortunately, Joseph only connected on ten out of 35 total attempts from beyond the arc in the FIBA Americas tournament. He went just 8-32 from three last season with the Spurs, including 6-24 in spot-up looks.
If both his past performances and his stint leading team Canada are any indication, we'll see a slightly improved Joseph next season, giving the team 10-15 minutes of heady defense and risk free offense management. Where his participation in the FIBA Americas tournament could definitely help is in terms of maturity and leadership. With his two likely running mates, Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli, being on the chaotic side, having Cory's steady hand to balance them could be of help. But expecting him to break out would seem to be a stretch.
Stats via FIBA.com