With Patty Mills out for a few months, Cory Joseph will get his first real chance of establishing himself at the NBA level. For his first three years with the Spurs, Joseph has had other players ahead of him on the depth chart. First it was Gary Neal, then came Nando De Colo and next up was Patty Mills. Now the only threat seems to be the undrafted, under-sized Bryce Cotton. Yet despite the lack of competition, for Joseph to emerge as a serious alternative once Mills returns he will need to improve in one area: shooting.
Most teams ask their backup PG to keep the offense running, create for the less talented subs and take care of the ball. But the Spurs are not most teams because they have Manu Ginobili. For the past five seasons, Manu has had an over 25% assist percentage and he has been over 30% or close in the last three seasons. Those are point guard numbers. Ideally, others will also create easy buckets for him but it's better when those assists come within the flow of the offense. Basically, you don't want a creator as talented as Ginobili standing around waiting for someone else to get the defense moving.
So because Ginobili is the second unit's creator, the backup point guard needs to be able to play off the ball and to create for himself when needed. That's why coach Gregg Popovich went with Neal for a few years and with Mills last season. Those guys can connect on catch-and-shoot jumpers and hit pull-ups when nothing else is there. With Boris Diaw back in the fold facilitating from the post, those skills become even more important. Manu and Boris will create the open shots. What the Spurs need in the second units are shooters that can convert those open looks into points.
And that's exactly what Joseph is not.
For his career, Cory Joseph is a 32% shooter in spot-up situations, according to MySynergySports. On 3-point attempts that number is lower, as he has only connected on 22.7% of his spot-up threes. Last season, he shot a paltry 29% on catch-and-shoot opportunities, according the NBA.com's player tracking tool. Simply put, Joseph has not been even close to qualifying as an off-the-ball threat at the NBA level so far in his career.
There's hope he could improve, supported by the fact that he shot 44.7% from three in his D-League career on over 100 attempts. It's possible all Cory needs to become a reliable 3-point shooter is to establish a rhythm and not have to worry about being pulled from the game if he misses. But there's also the possibility that he just can't get his shot up comfortably against NBA defenses. Here's an excerpt from a column newest Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina wrote a few years back, talking about Trajan Langdon:
Trajan Langdon is a very good example. In NBA he was considered an up-and-down shooter, while in college he had been an excellent shooter. In NBA defenders stay close to their opponents because they are much better athletes. So if you're not very quick at releasing the ball you'll find it hard shooting with high percentage. Trajan has a great shot, but he's not the quickest guy on the planet.
That could apply to Joseph. He might have great shot mechanics but not have the quickest release and that could affect his potential as a shooter at the NBA level. Comparing his form to Mills' it's easy to see that Mills barely brings the ball down to prepare his shot while Joseph has a more deliberate process. That extra half a second turns loose close-outs into tight ones at the NBA level.
Obviously, if he was able to create for others at a high rate, that handicap wouldn't mean as much. The Spurs had a similarly iffy shooter in T.J. Ford backing up Tony Parker at one point and it worked. And even Nando De Colo had his moments thanks to his passing and court vision. The problem is Cory is not all that great at that either.
Joseph barely passed the 20% assist percentage mark in the D-League. He only eclipsed that mark once in his admittedly short NBA career. Playing for Canada in FIBA Americas he averaged more rebounds than assists. He simply hasn't shown the ability or court vision to thread the needle and he can't break a defense down on his own. Any team that scouts him will go under the screen on the pick-and-roll and try to force him to reset or take the shot himself. There's not a ton of creativity as a playmaker in him and his lack of a shot affects his potential in this area as well.
The one thing Joseph has going for him that the Spurs value is his ability to create for himself in a pinch. Cory can hit pull-up mid-range jumpers after ball screens, which is a nice tool to have when the defense doesn't respect your outside shot. In fact, his 40.2% field goal percentage on pull-ups is very good, only slightly below those of Mills and Parker. And in particular this past year he showed a knack for getting to the rim, especially after hand-offs. He's not going to carry a unit with his scoring but he can put up a few points when needed. But is that really enough to offset the other inadequacies?
I don't mean this to be an indictment on Joseph as a player. Most teams would love to have such a young, level-headed caretaker backup PG. He rarely turns the ball over, he's great at getting the team into its sets and he's extremely disciplined and tenacious on defense. Those are all great qualities. They are simply not the ones the Spurs seem to value and need the most on a backup point guard at the moment. Asides from trying to preserve the rotations, there was likely another reason Pop had Joseph play with the starters when Parker was hurt instead of bumping Mills and having Cory play with the second unit: the fit just isn't there.
The dearth of roster spots, the uncertainty surrounding Mills' return date and the Spurs reliance on continuity pretty much ensure that they won't bring in anyone to usurp Joseph's place in the rotation right off the bat. But the fact that they are taking a long, hard look at the sweet-shooting Cotton means that the front office might be aware of how Cory's skill set might be incompatible with how the second unit works. In that case, it shouldn't be strange if the Spurs are linked to or even bring in another PG on an non-guaranteed contract if Cotton doesn't work out, just to have options.
As for Joseph's prospects, it would be unfair to not mention that this is the first time in his pro career that he has had the entire summer to work on his individual game after being on the Spurs' Summer League team for the past two years. It's possible he unveils a new wrinkle that we've not seen yet -- something which would make all assessments based on previous performance moot. Hopefully, Cory shows up with an improved catch-and-shoot jumper and not only becomes a perfect alternative for the Spurs in the short term but also raises his ceiling as a player.
But for now the fit remains less than ideal.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats and MySynergySports
(Yes, I've seen his dunk over Ibaka, and it was cool. But it doesn't mean anything when it comes to evaluating him as a player.)