Cory Joseph knows this road well. He's been up and down it a few times, after all.
The former first-round pick has bounced back and forth between the Austin Toros and San Antonio Spurs so often he's starting to see I-35 road signs in his sleep.
"I think I know that route with my eyes closed," Joseph joked.
For a guy who's bound to be on Gregg Popovich's speed dial by this point, maybe a police escort would be the least they could do for a young man who, at times, doesn't know whether he's coming or going.
"I keep my phone right on me just in case," he said. "(Wednesday) I drove down there and had to drive right back (to San Antonio)."
Such is life for the D-League-to-NBA-to-D-League nomad from the University of Texas. When the Spurs picked the 21-year-old Joseph at the end of the first round in 2011, the franchise that's so well known for making intelligent draft decisions was criticized for taking a guy who was deemed not ready for the NBA by many pundits. Most said he came out too early and questioned whether the former prep star was even close to being worth a first-round pick.
But at least one guy wanted him on his team, and that guy had some pretty high praise for the young point guard following Wednesday's 110-99 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
"(Cory) does things that win games," Popovich said. "Fifty-fifty balls, making a steal, getting a rebound, playing great (defense) -- he's always active. That's his game."
And Joseph knows his role. He knows his coach, too. Any player whose activity on the defensive end prompts that sort of compliment from Pop is doing something right. It doesn't hurt his prospects for playing time in the future, either.
"It means a lot," Joseph said of his coach's post-game remarks from the night before. "That's what I try to do. I try to be active, I try to pressure the ball, and I try to come in there and give the team a spark."
A much-needed spark, at that. The Spurs were without Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson, Danny Green and usual backup point guard Patty Mills, so Joseph's minutes as a contributing rotation player were beyond valuable in a come-from-behind victory. His stat line (two points, two rebounds, two steals and two assists) was nothing that's going to make any post-game show highlight reel, but he fell right in with the rest of the Spurs' bench -- a bench that has epitomized that "next man up" mentality.
"No matter who's on the court, we play together," Joseph said. "We're close to each other and I think it shows. We share the ball, we get along and we fight for one another."
This is a group of reserves that features three players - Joseph, James Anderson and Nando De Colo - who have spent time in the NBA's Developmental League, a league that continues to develop a deeper pool of talent. While CoJo enjoys his time in San Antonio when he gets the opportunity to play with the Spurs, he realizes the importance of getting minutes at this point in his career.
"You see more first-round guys going down there, and that's good," he said. "It's no good to sit down on the bench; obviously you learn, but after doing so much work you want to play. You want to get game experience. That's the best thing that will help you progress faster."
Joseph's legendary teammate agrees with him. Tim Duncan made his way across the court toward the media in the Spurs' practice facility on Thursday, shoeless and in no hurry to step into a semi-circle of recording devices. Among other things, he talked about what this team's bench has meant to a group dealing with its share of injuries.
Duncan pointed specifically to the Miami Heat game as a turning point in the confidence of several of these players.
"I think it gave them some great time on the floor where they weren't looking around and wondering if they should do things or take shots or make plays," Duncan said. "They were able to put it on themselves and gain some confidence and get a good feel for the court."
Timmy also echoed the sentiment that the D-League has become a valuable training ground for its young players, perhaps more so than ever.
"It's good for them, especially in a situation where you're on a team like this and your time is limited. At this point, for development, you just need them on the floor. You need them getting game experience as much as possible," he said. "And it's just a great situation for them to be able to do that; sticking them down there for a couple of games and have them get up and down. And just like in the Miami game, (they can) really be responsible for their minutes on the floor and be able to feel comfortable."
Spurs fans haven't seen much of Joseph in San Antonio, but that doesn't mean he's not playing. He's appeared in only 34 games for the silver and black during his brief career, but he's played 16 games in Austin. He even registered a 15-point, 17-rebound, 12-assist triple-double for the Toros last March that didn't resemble a typical point guard's stat-line. And Joseph is that kind of player. While his shot remains a work in progress, the rest of his game continues to impress. He's shown the ability to defend, rebound and distribute the ball at a respectable rate. It's a small sample size, but in two games with the Toros he's averaging eight rebounds and nearly seven assists in 35 minutes a night.
As is the case with most players, the extent of Joseph's success in the NBA will depend on his shot development. He has NBA-level talent in most of the other aspects of his game, but a player's shot can't be a liability in a system like the Spurs'. Still, the young Canadian seems to finally be realizing the potential many saw in him while at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev. And when you play for a team as deep as the Spurs with access to a system like the one in Austin, you have all the time and coaching necessary to mold your game.
As I wrote after the trip to Las Vegas for NBA Summer League action, there's a noticeable difference in Joseph's game. Slowly but surely he seems to be coming into his own.
"I think I'm a little more calm. The speed of the game slowed down. I understand the offense more," he said. "Obviously, when I go to Austin it's a different game. There's a whole new team in Austin, so you've got to adjust going back and forth.
"But here I feel like I'm fitting in now."
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