The previous time Cory Joseph had graced the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, bedlam was threatening to erupt.
Lance Stephenson had just converted a meaningless layup in the final seconds of an inspiring 17-point Pacers victory over Toronto late last season, as Joseph jogged behind him. Joseph’s Raptors teammates, P.J. Tucker and DeMar DeRozan, took exception and met Stephenson at midcourt, shouting and threatening him for breaking the NBA’s unwritten rule about winning teams not scoring meaningless baskets at the end of one-sided games. The benches cleared, and players had to be separated and shooed off the court.
Funny how things work in the NBA. Joseph walked onto The Fieldhouse court Monday as the newest Pacers player, a teammate of Stephenson’s, after his trade became official. The point guard essentially, although not technically, comes in a swap for C.J. Miles, who will be introduced to the Toronto media on Tuesday.
PHOTOS: Cory Joseph Career Gallery »
Asked about the incident, however, Joseph’s memory went conveniently blank.
“What moment is that?” he said, smiling. “I can’t remember. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Joseph has learned to forget fast in his six NBA seasons. That’s a necessity when teams that love your game still let you go for practical reasons. No hard feelings. You pack your bags and carry on, hoping to establish yourself at the next stop.
Joseph comes to the Pacers to compete with Darren Collison for the starting point guard position. Coach Nate McMillan was to have his first sit-down conversation with him following the media availability, but indicated he was going to tell Joseph the opportunity is there for him. Collison is the more established veteran and looms as the likeliest starter, but Joseph has proven he can be a productive – and winning – player when given the role.
His record when opening regular season games for San Antonio and Toronto is 44-25. He scored 33 points in a victory over Brooklyn in his first start last season, and went on to compile a 15-7 record when Kyle Lowry was injured. His success actually helped facilitate his arrival in Indianapolis, as the Raptors had to commit to one of them to avoid a logjam and potential chemistry issues at the position. They chose the more established Lowry, awarding him a three-year, $100 million contract last month.
Joseph, a Toronto native, understands, just as he understands why San Antonio – which selected him in the first round of the 2011 draft – had to let him go two years ago. The Spurs had signed LaMarcus Aldridge and had to make payroll sacrifices, and Joseph was one of them.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich hated to do it, though, and gave a hearty endorsement of Joseph in his recent conversations with Pacers president Kevin Pritchard. Joseph had earned Popovich’s trust and respect during his rookie season when he called the coach and asked if he could go to the Spurs’ Development League team to work on his game, rather than grow stale at the end of their bench.
“That takes a special character, and somebody that really cares a lot; he’s a unique young man,” Popovich once recalled while talking with Toronto reporters.
The Spurs were 21-8 when Joseph started throughout his first three seasons in San Antonio, then 7-7 his fourth season. Some of the losses, it should be mentioned, came in games when Popovich rested other starters and left his team shorthanded.
The bottom line of Joseph today is that he believes he’s ready to be a starter.
“One-hundred percent,” he said. “(The won-loss record) gives me confidence that I could definitely start.”
The footnote, however, is that he’s not fixated on it.
“I just want to keep an open mind and do what it takes to help the team win,” he said. “I can just control what I can control. I learned that in San Antonio and Toronto. I just go out there and play hard and let coach make those decisions.”
Joseph is a strong defender and capable playmaker and scorer, but his greatest attribute is his competitive spirit. Pritchard and McMillan took note of that when Toronto eliminated the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs two years ago, when Joseph averaged 10.7 points on 59 percent field goal shooting, and hit 5-of-8 3-pointers in seven games.
“He’s one of the few guards in the league who still picks up fullcourt,” McMillan said. “I love that about him. He’s a two-way guy.”
Both of Joseph’s parents were coaches, and his father still texts him with criticism after games. Competing is ingrained in him, regardless of his role or employer.
“He’s always been that way; you don’t make somebody that way,” Popovich had said. “Just like you can’t make somebody non-competitive, sometimes it’s hard to make them competitive. He already was, we didn’t teach him that.”
Joseph has yet to play on a losing team, and won a championship ring with the Spurs in 2014. He’s accustomed to winning, and has taken note of how it happens.
“Chemistry is a big factor in winning games,” he said. “In the NBA, everybody’s talented. The right chemistry and the right mindset, team goals that everybody trusts and builds into, says a lot. When I was in San Antonio, there were games where (star players) weren’t playing, but we still went into hostile situations and got the W.”
The one weakness in Joseph’s game is his 3-point shooting. His career percentage is .317, although he hit .356 last season for the Raptors. He won the 3-point contest at the McDonald’s All-American game, however, and has made that the focus of his summer workouts. Improvement in that area could take him to another level in the NBA, and perhaps influence his decision whether to accept or reject his option for the 2018-19 season.
“I’m working on it every day,” he said. “Right now, that’s my next step, to get that better. I’ll continue to work on it and get better at it.”
Besides, he can’t do anything about the past percentages now. Another new opportunity awaits him, one he hopes to make worth remembering.
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