Cory Joseph Brings Lessons Learned from Home, Spurs
Long before he’d pick the brains of Gregg Popovich and Tony Parker, or pickpocket NBA All-Stars, Cory Joseph, as early as age 6, would pretend he was Vince Carter or Steve Nash while dueling his older brother, Devoe, on the driveway of their Pickering, Ont. house.
They’d play through pouring rainstorms or with gloves covering their shooting hands during the cold Canadian winters. In the evenings, the one-on-one battles would continue inside, where they’d toss rolled-up tube socks into an improvised hoop.
“We’d bend a little hanger and put it on the door,” Cory recalled. “We’d play whenever we had a chance to play. Those were fun times, happy times. He made me a lot better.”
Their parents didn’t mind; they encouraged the ongoing competition. David Joseph came to Canada from Trinidad in the 1970s, when he was 12, and soon traded in his soccer cleats for basketball high-tops. A transcendent high school and college player, he’s since coached and won titles at nearly every local level.
On the campus of Mount Royal College, David met his future wife, Connie, herself a standout on the women's basketball team.
“I’m from a basketball family,” Cory said. “I’ve had a ball in my hands as long as I can remember.”
Devoe rose to high-school stardom in his hometown and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors at Oregon in 2012, before embarking on a lengthy, ongoing professional career overseas.
Cory, hanging on to NBA aspirations that eluded the elder Josephs, chose a different path. At 17, he opted to leave home to attend Findlay Prep, a now-defunct high-school basketball program outside of Las Vegas, Nev. Winning consecutive national invitational tournaments helped put him on the radar at a time when Canadian leagues didn’t garner much attention across the border.
“It’s changed now, but when I left, Canada basketball didn’t have as much exposure as it has now,” he said. “It helped me a lot. I was able to get more exposure and was able to get my name out there more.”
After one year at the University of Texas, Joseph became the first Canadian guard to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft (29th overall) since his idol, Steve Nash. But as an unproven rookie in a locker room loaded with Hall of Famers, he’d soon become familiar with the hour-and-a-half commute from San Antonio back to Austin, the home of the Spurs’ G-League affiliate, the Toros.
Midway through his second season, Joseph, still glued to the end of the Spurs’ bench, recognized he could only learn so much from watching Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, and absorbing hours of game film. So, after a mid-January practice, the second-year guard called his head coach to make an unusual request.
He wanted to be reassigned to the G-League.
It takes a lot to surprise Popovich, the legendary leader who’s seen and done it all in more than four decades on the sidelines. But one of his players – a first-round pick, no less – asking to play at a lower level? That was rare.
“I think he was shocked, because he doesn’t really get that too often,” Joseph said. “But he understood it.”
After several seconds of stunned silence, his wish was granted. The next morning, the 6-foot-3 guard returned to the Toros to practice, and more importantly, play later that night in Austin, where he averaged 19.4 points and 5.5 assists in 38.5 minutes per game across five separate stints in 2012-13.
Joseph, while keeping a close eye on Spurs games, made sure to get the most of his reps in the minors, working on everything from his shot selection to his ball handling, while running an offense similar to the main ballclub’s.
“I just needed to play,” he said. "I figured if there’s not an opportunity to play (with the Spurs) right now, I’d go play in the G-League so I could showcase my talent.”
The move paid off when the Spurs recalled him a month later. Filling in for an injured Parker, Joseph, his minutes and self-confidence rising to all-time highs, started nine games and impressed in his first meaningful NBA opportunity. By the time Parker returned, Cory Joe had shown enough offensive aggressiveness and defense acumen to seize the backup point guard job for good, and earned Popovich’s trust once the Playoffs commenced.
The next year, the Spurs celebrated a championship, and Joseph was an instrumental factor, registering more minutes, points and assists than in his first two seasons combined. Along with his veteran mentors, who never declined to answer questions or review game film, the guard credits the coaching staff, from Popovich to assistant Chip Engelland, for his development.
“The Spurs system was great for me,” he said. “It was the best thing for me to get drafted there. I learned so much behind Tony Parker, Ginobili, Popovich, Tim Duncan. I’m going to be forever grateful for them.”
Joseph’s humility, leadership and undeniable passion for the game made him a priority for the Kings during the offseason. In Sacramento, the ninth-year veteran saw a rising team that was missing precisely the kinds of qualities he could offer.
“Watching them play last year, they were a good squad that was on the brink of the Playoffs,” he said. “I thought I could bring my experience here to a youthful squad that may need it.”
That experience includes 82 postseason appearances and proven productivity on both ends of the floor.
No. 9 was one of the top reserve scorers at his position during his two years with the Raptors (8.9 points per game) and averaged a career-high 3.9 assists with the Pacers last season. After going through extra shooting drills with assistant coaches throughout his career – Engelland in San Antonio, Jerry Stackhouse in Toronto and Lindsey Harding in Sacramento – he’s become one of the better finishers at the basket; this season, he's converted on a team-best 77.8 percent (7-of-9 attempts) within five feet.
Defensively, he graded among the League leaders in virtually every major category in 2018-19, including ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus (1.53; fourth), plus defensive win shares (2.9; tied-eighth) and defensive box plus-minus (1.4; tied-eighth), via basketball-reference.com.
Slowing down some of the League’s top point guards, whether he’s facing smaller, quicker distributors or switching on taller wings, begins, Joseph says, with keeping the basketball out of his counterpart’s hands.
“If they don’t have the ball,” he said, “they can’t be the best, right?”
With Joseph’s suffocating intensity on ball-handlers, most attempts to score on him have amounted to wasted opportunities, helping prevent a steep drop-off in the absence of De’Aaron Fox.
In a win at Atlanta on Nov. 8, he forced Hawks guard Trae Young into three turnovers and 1-of-5 shooting on 17 possessions, per NBA.com. Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard committed five turnovers and registered a -11 plus/minus while primarily covered by Joseph, who finished with two blocks and a steal in a victory on Nov. 12.
“It’s about playing their tendencies, their strengths,” Joseph said. “I try to make them go to their weaknesses as much as possible.”
In four starts, he’s also dished out 25 assists – including a career-high 14 in Tuesday’s win over the Suns – compared to only five turnovers, the 10th-best ratio (4.17) among all guards during that span (min. 25 minutes per game).
Still only 28, Joseph has come a long way since riding the pine in San Antonio, and even further since those heated one-on-one battles against his older brother.
“All that knowledge I soaked up when I was younger, I still have it with me,” he said. “I’m much wiser and a lot more experienced.”
But there’s one aspect that hasn’t, and won’t, change.
“Every time I’m on the court, I play extremely hard,” Joseph said. “Basketball is all about effort and I’ll do whatever it takes.”