The San Antonio Spurs notably returned the entirety of their 2014 NBA Championship roster, adding only rookie Kyle Anderson to shore up lagging doughnut responsibilities. However, that the same cast and crew are back does not mean larger roles aren’t up for grabs.
Last year Cory Joseph was more stunt double than backup, on the court only to spare Tony Parker the most dangerous rigors of an NBA season. But if each season writes a new story, Joseph is the background character the author found a little more time to flesh out in the second book.
Joseph entered his fourth season with some knowledge of what he could do as a caretaker point guard with a knack for hustle plays in limited minutes, but the upper limits of his ceiling were still largely unexplored. He was a surprising draft pick in the first round for the Spurs, having left the University of Texas after his freshman year with a largely unrefined game. The end of the Spurs bench has hardly been the best place to hone it.
“I work out all the time, but you can work out everyday and it’s nothing like game experience,” Joseph once said of his time shuttling between San Antonio and Austin, the Spurs D-League affiliate. “So it was good to get down there, work out, and also play in the games and have the opportunity to play a lot of minutes and learn from your mistakes.”
Injuries and allotted rest times have given Cory Joseph a steadier role this year. And though he should fade into the background some as Tony Parker and Patty Mills round into shape and this story moves into its second and third acts, Joseph has played his role well enough to intrigue and perhaps revisit in the future.
After all, few teams boast the Spurs’ track record of uncovering valuable players from the fringes over the course of Gregg Popovich’s tenure.
Character has long been the common thread tying each rise from anonymity together, and the Spurs proclivity for players that have “gotten over themselves,” has long been publicized. But character still requires talent at this level, and it’s interesting to look at how the Spurs identify and develop what had widely been considered marginal talent.
Having three high usage stars whose skill sets vary enough to run the entire gamut of NBA needs certainly helps. With an idea of what’s needed to supplement their core, the Spurs have the rare luxury of seeking out specific strengths while ignoring obvious weaknesses. This is a luxury not afforded to less evolved (rebuilding) teams, or those built around one-dimensional stars. Such teams can simply ill-afford to waste one of their five spots on the basketball court with limited role players.
A perfect example of this exists in Danny Green, who would be the perfect in the second iteration of the LeBron James Cavaliers had he not been jettisoned at the end of the first.
“They were looking for guys that could make plays and do their own things. Not saying that I’m terrible at it, but obviously it’s not my game,” Green said. “Luckily I found a place where I didn’t have to do all those things.”
The Spurs’ system has often been described as machine-like, partly due to the plug-and-play nature of their personnel. In computer systems, artificial intelligence is incapable of replicating the complexities of human consciousness, just as replicating the contributions of a fully-formed superstar are hard to replace. But limit AI tasks in a vanishingly narrow way and it can exceed our capacity to perform.
Rather than compete with other teams for more well-rounded (and more expensive) players, the Spurs seek overlooked talent with one or two clearly defined, NBA-viable skills, the proper character, and little else. Having that one skill gets the player on the court, the Spurs’ system prevents him from getting overwhelmed, and granted enough minutes something blossoms.
Henry Abbott and David Thorpe have been writing about it for years, tracing the “royal jelly” conversation back to a 2010 post on ESPN’s TrueHoop:
“But player development experts I’ve talked to at length are unanimous that one of the best things one can possibly do to help a rookie’s career is to bless him with the confidence of a supportive coaching staff and minutes to get used to the NBA game — and very few players get that. Just a week ago an elite player development coach told me that every single player in the NBA can play, and it’s really just a matter of opportunities and coaching and the team.
David Thorpe has been making similar points for years. He talks all the time about “the royal jelly.” Literally, that’s what worker bees feed a chosen baby bee to make her the queen. But it’s also, says Thorpe, what coaches and others can feed players to help them achieve their potential. A lot of it has to do with building confidence. Throughout his career, Thorpe has been accused of hyping up his players up and giving them big heads, to which he replies, jokingly, “guilty!” Thorpe is convinced that “the royal jelly” can and has fundamentally changed the careers of countless players. The gold standard of helping a player evolve, he says, starts with playing time.
“Playing time is the first part,” says Thorpe. “A coach’s support is another thing — it helps you grow as a player if you know you’re not going to get yanked the first time you miss a shot. That gives you the confidence to be creative and expand your game. And then the final aspect of the ideal set-up is coaching you up on the new things you’re adding to your game.”
Often player development is thought of in terms of acquiring completely new skills, like a three-point shot or floater. But for the Spurs, player development often means building a few subtle layers on top of the one or two skills that gets that player on the court.
For Green, it was the foundations of NBA three-point range and defensive length that earned him a roster spot. The Spurs development staff augmented those skills by teaching him how to move off the ball, against his defender’s vision, to create opportunities. Defensively, the simple act of applying his length and mobility to the Spurs’ principles have made him a valuable two-way player.
This year Green has added a few new wrinkles, improving his work in transition and off the bounce. But it’s not a remarkably tighter handle or floater that have driven his improvements. He’s simply received enough playing time that the game, and therefore his pace, has slowed enough to improve his control and decision making.
Earlier in the season Aron Baynes filled in for an injured Tiago Splitter, his primary NBA asset (brute strength) accentuated with a variety of refined screen angles, a better rapport with Manu Ginobili, and a few basic reads when the defense rotated over on his dives in pick and roll.
Joseph entered the NBA with good size, decent athleticism, and a non-stop motor (an underrated NBA skill), but was nondescript in almost every other attribute that defines NBA point guards; earning time on the court through sheer hustle. He was expected to showcase his wares this year as Patty Mills recovered from shoulder surgery, but injuries to Parker have necessitated that Joseph stretch his limits as the sole off-the-bounce option in the starting lineup for much of December.
It wasn’t always a smooth process. With Joseph at the helm in December the starting lineup struggled at times, the tempo becoming a little more deliberate and the reliance on Tim Duncan for shot creation a little heavier than the Spurs would prefer. But since December Joseph has settled in, averaging 12.1 points on 56.4 percent shooting while taking care of the ball and working tirelessly on defense.
“He’s been very important for us. He’s become a reliable mid-range shooter and he’s really attacking the rim hard,” Ginobili said. “We have a lot of guys setting up for shots and we need guys to get into the paint, and he’s doing that.”
He’s shooting roughly 60 percent at the rim, over 50 percent from 15 feet and in, and 70 percent (on few attempts) from the right elbow and wing extended. The work he’s put in on his jumper and finishing have yielded capabilities that simply did not exist before. But the biggest strides are in how he leverages his energy on offense.
Joseph’s shooting percentages are solid, but his usage is still low for what the Spurs need from a starting point guard sans Kawhi Leonard. He’s still learning how to collapse defenses as the head of the snake. Where he’s finding his niche is attacking closeouts, forgoing shot fakes (he and defenses know he’s not a threat from deep) in favor of immediately putting the ball on the floor on the catch.
Though Joseph still lacks gravity–the ability to bend defenses in his direction–his constant movement keeps his defender occupied and presents driving lanes that allow him to showcase his improved finishing ability. Though he still doesn’t create enough passing lanes, he reads defenses well enough on the move to make dump off passes presented to him and avoid turnovers.
And the more playing time he’s received, the more his confidence has grown, allowing him to experiment with a few creative moves, like the Rajon Rondo impersonation he pulled against Kris Humphries and the Washington Wizards:
It will be interesting to see where Joseph fits in as the team ramps up for its playoff run. The best possible version of the Spurs still doesn’t include their third string point guard; with Parker’s play-making balancing out the Spurs best defensive, offensively limited lineups and Mills’ pace and space game hyper-charging the second unit alongside Ginobili. But Joseph has been a net positive and now stands a viable full-time NBA rotation player.
“He always impresses me with the way he plays,” Popovich said. “He’s not blessed with the most talent in the world, but I don’t think there’s anybody on the planet that gets more out of what he’s got.”
At least until the next Spurs role player comes around.