This is a huge year for Cory Joseph. The Canadian point guard hasn't had a consistent role in his first three seasons in the league, alternating between the D-League and short stints as a starter when Tony Parker got injured. But now, at 23, he finds himself getting a career high in minutes per game and playing every night.
When he was drafted the idea was to groom him to be the back up point guard but the unexpected emergence of Patty Mills left him in an awkward position; too good to be a third stringer but not good enough to claim regular minutes. As a result, he's been almost forgotten. No one feels too strongly about his talent. No one thinks he could be great or that he should be out of the league. There's no consensus on who he is as a player. But Joseph has evolved a lot in these past few years and it's now possible to not just discuss him while relying on the broad context of potential but actually on production.
Entering his fourth season -- his last under contract -- Joseph seems to have formed an identity as a hustle player, which is not surprising considering he's always been asked to do the little things. He focuses on rebounding, defending and taking care of the ball. Only 16 other point guards that have played at least 100 minutes rank higher in defensive rebound percentage. Opponents have shot 5-20 (25%) on three pointers Cory has contested. And he turns the ball over on only eight percent of the possessions he uses.
So he has his strengths but he also has his weaknesses. Joseph can't shoot from outside unless he's wide open. He has a slow release in large part because he brings the ball down too much on his windup. Only when the defense is completely out of the play does he get the time he needs, which means that he takes very few threes. Instead, he often doesn't even look at the rim after kick outs, opting for another dribble drive that the opponents are happy to concede since he's not a great finisher or creator.
It takes Cory a little longer to get his set shot off
It's not like Cory is useless on offense. He can make simple passes but his best weapon is his ability to shoot off the dribble. Joseph takes almost two pull-up jumpers per game, a gargantuan number for a player that averages 17 minutes a game. But he shoots a fantastic 52.9% on those attempts, which is well above average. The problem is that his range doesn't extend to the three point line, so he ends up taking the type of in-between shots the Spurs want everyone not named Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Kawhi Leonard to forsake.
Defensively, the guy competes. Even when he's switched onto bigger guys he plays physical D and doesn't make many mistakes. He has no problem pressuring opposing lead guards on their own court and he rarely makes mistakes. But he doesn't make plays all that often, either. Despite having a very good steal rate, he rarely makes the type of on-ball strips or off-ball passing lane hawking that result in fastbreak points. In fact, the team plays at a very deliberate pace when he's running things, which does little to hide his aforementioned offensive limitations in the half court.
By now you are probably noticing a theme: Cory Joseph has some strengths that make him a decent NBA player but those strengths don't necessarily fit what the Spurs need from a back up point guard. Cory with the bench unit is clearly a case of a square peg trying his darnest to fit in a round hole. He can't play off of Manu Ginobili but he also can't create shots well enough to take the ball away from Manu, like Parker does when the two share the floor. The bench unit with him out there in Mills' place is just never going to work at the same level. It's impossible.
Yet because of his hustle, Joseph is not hurting the Spurs, either. San Antonio outscores opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions when Joseph is on the court, despite hemorrhaging points when he's forced to slide up to shooting guard thanks to Belinelli's injury. The offense is a mess when he's on the court but that's true with most Spurs so far. But the defense is very, very good. The Diaw-Ginobili-Joseph bench core allows only 89.7 points per 100 possessions, a fantastic mark.
Offensively, Joseph does enough to not be a huge minus. He has great assists-to-turnover numbers, which have been hard to find in this sloppy start of the season. He's not a good finisher at the rim but he bails out some bad possessions with that one dribble pull-up of his. And even if the results are not always ideal, he keeps the ball moving instead of over-dribbling or looking for his own shot when there might be better options available.
The team clearly misses Patty Mills; that much is clear. But as tempting as it might be to blame the early struggles on Joseph, there's nothing to suggest he's in any way responsible for them, at least not when he plays lead guard (please, Pop, no more two point-guard lineups until Mills is healthy). Joseph always gives the team the same steady production, game after game. And even if it's not what the Spurs need right now it would be extremely unfair to chastise Joseph for not being something he has never been. Instead, we should celebrate that he strangely makes things work better than they should despite every factor seemingly working against him.
Joseph is playing for a contract this season. And he has done enough to show he's an NBA player so he will get one. With Parker and Mills already on the books it doesn't seem he will remain a Spur unless he's fine with playing sparingly. But he has always been decent when the team has needed him and still has a chance to make an impact this season. We don't know when Mills will return so the Spurs will need him to continue being solid for 15 minutes a game.
"Decent" and "solid" will always be the type of words associated with Joseph instead of "explosive" or "game-changing." And that's OK. There's value in being steady, hard-working and -- for lack of a better word -- obedient.
It's a tradition at this point to suggest players are lucky to be drafted by a great organization like the Spurs. But it's possible Cory Joseph's career would have gone better if another team -- one that had a better use for his talents -- had selected him. Joseph's days as a fixture in the rotation might be numbered. And even his presence on the roster seems to have an expiration date. But it won't be because he can't play.