SAN ANTONIO — As the aging Spurs make a run at another NBA title, former Texas Longhorn and Austin Toros roster regular Cory Joseph has emerged as a key contributor, logging his most valuable time on the court yet for the four-time NBA champions during the Spurs’ first-round sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers.
When the Spurs drafted Joseph in the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft after just one year with the Longhorns, the 6-3 guard thought he’d played his last game in Austin. But it was his return to Austin that helped him prepare to play at a high level down the stretch for the Spurs this season.
With a roster full of veterans like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili at the guard position, Joseph wasn’t likely to get very much playing time on the court in San Antonio. And, having spent only one year at Texas, there was a very real question of whether Joseph was truly NBA-ready.
That’s where the Austin Toros come in. The Spurs are one of just five NBA teams to own their own minor league franchise. Playing about ninety minutes away from the AT&T Center at suburban Austin’s Cedar Park Center, the NBA Development League’s Toros operate very much like the Spurs. And, it’s a quick drive for players on assignment from San Antonio.
Toros coach Taylor Jenkins says that’s a strength of the Toros and one of the reasons the Spurs prefer to own their D-League team. Of the 17 total teams in the NBA’s official minor league, 12 franchises operate with one-to-one affiliations, but only five are owned outright by their respective affiliates, though outright ownership is a trend that is growing. The Philadelphia 76ers just this week announced that they will become the sixth NBA team to own a D-League franchise beginning next season.
Still, playing for the Austin Toros and the D-League isn’t the same as playing for the Spurs.
“Obviously I wanted to play for the team that drafted me,” said Joseph. “But I did end up playing in Austin (again) and I’m happy I did.”
San Antonio sent Joseph to Austin three times during his rookie season, where he averaged 13.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.29 steals a game. But, its minutes that matter. Minutes, and game experience, and Joseph got more than 32 minutes a game in Austin in his rookie season. In four games with the Spurs last year, Joseph played fewer than 32 total minutes.
“Your first reaction (going to the minors) is to get a little upset. You want to be playing with your team. But, you want to get minutes. And I understood I was there to learn, be positive and do my best,” Joseph said.
“You can work out as much as you want, but there’s nothing like playing in the game.”
And play he did. Leading Austin for much of the season, Joseph helped the Toros reach the playoffs following the 2012 season. The Toros went on to win the NBA Development League title last season, bringing home Austin’s first-ever professional sports title, though Joseph had been recalled by the Spurs just as the Toros began their playoff run.
Joseph’s time in Austin helped his game so much that he even asked Spurs coach Gregg Popovich if he come back to Austin this year, where in four stints, Joseph played in 26 games and led the team with 19.4 points. He ranked fourth in the D-League in steals before being recalled by the Spurs a final time on Feb. 28.
Joseph also said the fact that the Spurs operate the Toros from top to bottom, coaching to play calling, in the same model as their NBA team further helped him improve his game and readiness to contribute in San Antonio.
“The coaching staff, the system ... it’s very, very similar to being in San Antonio,” said Joseph.
Joseph said that during each of his seven assignments with the Toros, he had frequent contact with the coaching staff in San Antonio, getting tips and pointers on his game. Spurs executives can be seen courtside in Austin frequently during the regular season, working to evaluate both talent and coaching.
As San Antonio completed a sweep of the Lakers on Sunday, Joseph came off the bench for more than 18 minutes in the heart of the game, showing he had earned Popovich’s trust as a key contributor.
Now, looking back on his first two seasons as a pro and looking ahead at his future with the Spurs, Joseph says his time with the Austin Toros played a key role in his development.
“I couldn’t stress it enough,” said Joseph. “It paid off a lot.”