Pop, Can I Go to the D-League?

Near the end of a long day, Cory Joseph pulled out his phone. He punched in a number that belonged to Gregg Popovich and waited.

Joseph had practiced hard but felt sluggish. He’d stayed after for extra shooting but felt odd. A day earlier, he’d been recalled from the Spurs’ D-League affiliate in Austin but couldn’t muster much excitement.

The Spurs had a game the next day in Dallas, and Joseph knew what he had to do. When Pop answered the call, Joseph made a surprising request.

Can I go back to the D-League?

There was, Joseph recalls, two or three seconds of silence. It isn’t often a first-round NBA pick asks to be reassigned to the D-League. It may be unprecedented for a first-rounder to make the request after four previous D-League stops in the same season.

But there was Joseph, on the phone with Pop, explaining why the move would be in everyone’s best interest. “Let’s do it,” Pop said.

Joseph packed, and practiced the next morning with the Toros. “I could be sitting on the bench in San Antonio,” Joseph explains, “or I could be getting better.”

That was the big picture perspective of a 21-year-old point guard. Pop marveled. Kid wants to play at a lower level to improve his game for the next level? “Usually,” Pop says, “you don’t get that kind of a request.”

The Spurs recalled Joseph a month later, and look at him now. In his first five starts he has averaged 8.8 points and 2.6 assists in 22.8 minutes. No one saw that coming. Of course, no one saw Tony Parker going down with a sprained ankle. But when he did, Joseph did not disappoint.

“He’s improved significantly,” Pop says.

That wasn’t going to happen in San Antonio. No matter how hard he worked in practice. No matter how long he stayed after to work on his shot. No matter how well he listened to coaches. No matter how much film he studied.

“I needed to play,” Joseph says.

He didn’t need to look at the numbers. No one needed to show him he was averaging 6.8 minutes a game in San Antonio. That he was averaging 1.9 points and 1.3 assists.

What Joseph felt on the day he called Pop was the unsettled feeling of inactivity, of rust. He didn’t complain. But the frustration of sitting grew, and he felt powerless to improve his game from the bench.

So the call to Pop made sense, but it wasn’t easy. “You really have to put your pride aside,” Joseph says, “and say you want to get better.”

Pop agreed but not without a bit of concern. “You worry about the self image of the kid and his confidence,” Pop says.

Turns out there was no need to worry. In Austin, Joseph went to work on his shot and his floor leadership. In 12 games, he averaged 17.8 points and 6.5 assists. The more he played, the more his confidence grew.

“When I was down there, I still watched the (Spurs) games,” Joseph says. “I was learning and trying to simulate the stuff they wanted me to do in Austin. The coaching staff there did a great job of helping me.”

Austin agrees with Joseph. In his lone season at the University of Texas, Joseph made the Big 12 All-Rookie team, averaging 10.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists. During five stints in Austin this season, he tore up the D-League. He ranked second in scoring, 11th in assists and was named a D-League All-Star.

As well as he played in Austin, Joseph did not know what to expect when the Spurs recalled him in late February. His first game back, he scored nine points in 10:47, and that was nice. But then Parker sprained his ankle, and the early prognosis hit Spurs Nation hard. Parker, the five-time All-Star and MVP candidate, would miss a month.

What to do?

Pop selected Joseph to start against Detroit, and Joseph spun around in surprise. Me? Pop liked Joseph’s competitiveness and physicality, the way he chased loose balls. Of course, Pop also liked Joseph’s defense. Five starts later, Pop is no less impressed.

“He’s just solid,” Pop said after Joseph’s zero-turnover game against Oklahoma City, a 105-93 Spurs victory. “He plays good ‘D.’ He’s scrappy and aggressive and he’s doing what we asked him to do.”

What Pop likes about Joseph today began with a rare request in January. A kid growing into a man, asking to take a step down so when the time came, he could step up.