By Jeff McDonald
LAS VEGAS — In the span of four hours this past week, the Spurs announced the return of one backup point guard (Patrick Mills) and the signing of another (Nando de Colo).
With two international roadblocks suddenly in his path to playing time, it would have been easy for Cory Joseph to read the writing on the wall as a bus ticket back to Austin and the Development League.
Instead, Joseph looks at his plummeting place on the Spurs’ depth chart as an opportunity.
“As a player, you love competition,” said Joseph, a first-round pick in 2011 after one college season at Texas. “It’s going to be a battle every day in practice. We’re going to raise each other’s play.”
For the next seven days in Las Vegas, Joseph is presented with a rare solo chance he dare not squander.
When the Spurs open a five-game slate at NBA Summer League, de Colo will be overseas, preparing for Olympic duty as Tony Parker’s backup on the French national team. Mills will be gearing up for London as well, as a member of the Australian team.
Meanwhile in Las Vegas, the Spurs will put the ball in the hands of a 20-year-old Canadian and offer him a shot to show he can pass for an NBA point guard.
The clock is ticking. The Spurs have until Oct. 31 to decide whether to pick up Joseph’s $1.12 million contract for 2013-14 or cut him loose as an unrestricted free agent next summer.
“I’m just going to do what got me here,” said Joseph, who spent most of his rookie year with the D-League champion Austin Toros. “Just play and compete, and let the rest handle itself.”
Summers are vital for the development of young players, and especially point guards, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says.
He recalls the strides made by former Spur George Hill — now a member of the Indiana Pacers — between his first and second pro seasons.
“When he first came in, he couldn’t even spell pick-and-roll,” Popovich said. “He didn’t know what was going on, and the summer program was huge for bringing him along. I think it will be the same for Cory.”
That growth was stolen from Joseph last season by the NBA lockout, cancelling the summer league as well as other team-run minicamps young players traditionally use as springboards to improvement.
Once the shortened season began in December, Joseph and fellow rookie Kawhi Leonard were essentially tossed into the NBA ocean and told to swim.
Deemed a long-term project from the day two Junes ago that he was drafted 29th overall, Joseph appeared in 29 games for the Spurs as a rookie, much of it mop-up duty, and started one.
He averaged two points and shot a woeful 31.4 percent from the field but showed promise as a defender. The Spurs are hopeful that under the tutelage of Summer League coach Jacque Vaughn, a former NBA point guard himself, Joseph might begin to absorb the intricacies of the pick-and-roll.
Overcoming a lack of summer development, Leonard turned in an All-Rookie campaign, emerging as the Spurs’ starting small forward.
Meanwhile, Joseph was primarily in Austin and would have spent more time in the state capital had backup point T.J. Ford not been lost for the season in early January.
The Austin experience, Joseph admits, was good for him.
“I just tried to control the team and learn as a point guard to just be a leader,” he said. “There’s no experience like game experience.”
This week in Las Vegas, Joseph is sure to get that.
The Spurs have high hopes for him in Summer League, as well as for the other, more high-profile member of last year’s rookie class.
“I’d like to see Cory play like Steve Nash; I’d like to see Kawhi play like Michael Jordan,” general manager R.C. Buford said. “But we’ll take some intermittent progress. Just them playing to their strengths and seeing where they are.”
It is a bar Joseph believes he can clear, mostly because he has no other choice.
His Spurs career is on the clock. There are other point guards on the way, decisions for management to make — and no time to lose.
“I’ve always been a workhorse,” Joseph said. “Things might not always go your way, I know that. But you’ve just got to stick with it, and that’s what I’m going to always do.”
SPURS SUMMER LEAGUE SCHEDULE
The Spurs’ Summer League team will play five games in ?Las Vegas in seven days.
Today: vs. Hawks, Cox Pavilion, 7 p.m.
Tuesday: vs. Lakers, Thomas Mack, 5:30 p.m.
Wednesday: vs. Clippers, Cox Pavilion, 9 p.m.
Friday: vs. Heat, Cox Pavilion, 7 p.m.
Saturday: vs. Mavericks, Cox Pavilion, 5 p.m.
SPURS SUMMER LEAGUE ROSTER
No. Player Pos. Ht. Wt. DOB From Yrs.
42 Alexis Ajinca C 7-2 248 5/6/88 France 4th
25 James Anderson G 6-6 215 3/25/89 Oklahoma State 3rd
10 Dwight Buycks G 6-3 190 6/6/89 Marquette 1st
34 Derrick Byars G/F 6-7 220 4/25/84 Vanderbilt 2nd
23 Eric Dawson F 6-9 250 7/7/84 Midwestern State 2nd
1 Marcus Denmon G 6-3 185 3/20/90 Missouri 1st
17 Moses Ehambe G/F 6-6 215 5/22/86 Oral Roberts 1st
43 Darius Foster G 6-3 210 1/12/88 Wilberforce 1st
11 JaMychal Green F 6-8 228 6/21/90 Alabama 1st
7 Cedric Jackson G 6-3 190 3/5/86 Cleveland State 2nd
5 Cory Joseph G 6-3 190 8/20/91 Texas 2nd
2 Kawhi Leonard F 6-7 225 6/29/91 San Diego State 2nd
14 Kalin Lucas G 6-1 195 5/24/89 Michigan State 1st
19 Ryan Richards F 6-11 230 4/21/91 England 1st
30 Alexis Wangmene F/C 6-7 241 3/1/89 Texas 1st
27 Tyler Wilkerson F 6-8 240 7/25/88 Marshall 1st
24 L.D. Williams G 6-4 210 5/8/88 Wake Forest 1st
40 Luke Zeller F/C 6-11 245 4/7/87 Notre Dame 1st
Head coach: Jacque Vaughn
Assistant coaches: Bret Brielmaier, Will Hardy, Taylor Jenkins, Alex Lloyd, Christos Marmarinos, Lele Molin, Darko Rajakovic
Athletic trainer: Dice Yamaguchi