Joseph knows he must improve, take advantage of time in Vegas
LAS VEGAS — At the Las Vegas Summer League, storylines of the present are often topics of the future. When it’s utilized correctly, it’s essentially a test lab — a safe room for experimentation of the unknown.
The Spurs used their time wisely last July, throwing Kawhi Leonard into the ring and letting him go. He was the team’s first scoring option, initiated pick and rolls and played the role of the Spurs’ main focal point. While we didn’t see Leonard star in any similar role during the 2012-13 season, we did see the beginnings of something promising. The exercises these players are running aren’t for the now, they’re for the future. These drills are meant to develop the talent that’s there for two or three years down the road. This time around, it’s Cory Joseph’s turn to be Tony Parker, to be the unquestioned leader of the group on the floor. And the 21-year-old point guard is taking his time here seriously.
San Antonio lost by six points to the Toronto Raptors on Sunday night. It’s just summer league, so it’s difficult to find any vested interest in the outcome. Unless you’re Joseph, who clearly has as much invested in the process as he does the results. His post-game interview lasted less than two minutes, his answers short.
“We did bad that game, obviously. Defensively we’ve got to pick it up,” he responded to one inquiry.
“Just trying to lead the team to wins, and obviously we didn’t do it tonight so we’ve got to be better tomorrow,” he answered another.
At summer league, playing basketball is a learning experience, even if it’s something all too familiar for guys who make millions playing the sport. It’s like riding a bike. There’s always room to learn how to move without holding the handlebars.
“I’m a point guard. I’ve been leading teams all my life, and they kind of let me find (my own rhythm),” Joseph when asked if there’s anything specific he’s been tasked with during this 10-day stretch. “But obviously they talk to me as well and give me pointers.”
Joseph finished the 82-76 loss with 16 points, six rebounds and six assists. He was clearly one of the top three players on the court for both teams, but Spurs coach Ime Udoka has a higher level of expectation for the player he knows well.
“Cory was OK, but he can definitely be better. We need him to be more vocal in his role and up the pressure and respond better when we get down in those ruts,” he said. “He’s the leader out there. We need him to take more command. So that’s something we’re continuing to stress to him, to be more vocal and get these guys into the sets we want.”
Udoka doesn’t buy into the mindset that this is only an exhibition, and neither do his players. For most, the summer league is low key. The laissez-faire aura surrounding the festivities (which is admittedly more prominent among the visiting members of the media than the players) can often promote a lackadaisical attitude. But this is often where paychecks are earned, and the opportunity is taken very seriously.
“You’re out here playing in front of all the GMs and all the executives and guys around the league. You’re trying to impress. It’s like you’re dressed to impress,” Dexter Pittman said. “A lot of guys put a lot of pressure on themselves, including me. And this is my third year doing it.”
Pittman, whose journeyman status has him out on the open market, is having a difficult time sticking in one place. But after a career at the University of Texas and a title run with the Miami Heat, he knows good leadership. There’s a difference between winning teams and those that lose, and much of that culture is bred in places like Las Vegas during the NBA’s off months.
“(San Antonio is) a championship organization. Everything is hat on, boots on. I like that,” a svelte-looking Pittman said. “Coming from a Texas program, it’s kind of the same way. Coach (Rick) Barnes is always preaching about getting his guys ready for the league and just being a professional.
“Every team has its own DNA. You have to adjust,” he continued. “Being a player like me who’s probably going to bounce around, I always have to be ready to adjust.”
For Joseph, Pittman’s summer teammate and fellow Longhorn, the story isn’t so much about adjustment, it’s about preparation for his future. As much as the summer league is a job interview for the NBA nomad and undrafted rookie, it’s value comes to life in the form of young, organization-type players who just need more court time.
The wins and losses here don’t matter much, at least not on the surface. But it’s here the Spurs’ organization teaches the very root of its success. Learning how to do the little things that win games isn’t always something inherent in these players. Sometimes you have to play in the Vegas desert to find out exactly what they are.