Editor’s Note: The Silver Screen and Roll staff is counting down the most interesting Lakers heading into next season (The 15 guaranteed contracts plus the two guys on two-way contracts). We continue today with No. 16, Alex Caruso, and will be counting down to the Laker we think is most interesting with a new piece each day until we hit No. 1.
Alex Caruso has been one of the great success stories of the NBA G League. Joey Buss identified him as an elite G League point guard when the Lakers brought him in last year, but unfortunately for Caruso, he seems destined to spend the majority of this season in South Bay once again.
With the addition of several point guards and primary ball-handlers this offseason, the Lakers — mercifully — no longer have the same need for Caruso they did one year ago, settling him near the bottom of our rankings. Nevertheless, that doesn’t diminish what the Texas A&M product was able to accomplish last season.
Caruso was the recipient of the Lakers’ first-ever two-way contract last July after his performance in NBA Summer League, where he particularly impressed in two spot starts for the injured Lonzo Ball. That opportunity foreshadowed the role he would come to play in the regular season. Ball missed 30 games, and Caruso played in 36, as Caruso’s extended stretches in the NBA neatly corresponded with Ball’s injury absences.
The 24 year-old point guard ended the year on a strong note, filling the vacuum of available minutes at the one (Jordan Clarkson was moved at the trade deadline, his replacement Isaiah Thomas sat out with a hip injury the final two weeks, and Ball also missed all of April.) In the final nine games of the season, Caruso split point guard minutes almost evenly with Tyler Ennis, and averaged 10.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per 36 minutes in those contests. Caruso posted career highs of 15 points and 7 rebounds in the final game of the year, as he started in a win against the L.A. Clippers.
Caruso parlayed his strong finish to the season into a spot on Team USA for 2019 World Cup qualifying. He started both games for the American team as they completed the first round of the group stage with a 5-1 record and advanced to the second phase of qualification. Caruso kept his busy schedule going in Summer League, playing another eight games for the Lakers. Even though he wasn’t nearly as effective as in 2017, Caruso evidently showed enough to keep his two-way spot and stay with the Lakers for one more year.
But although he carved out a role for himself in Los Angeles for the past year, Caruso’s opportunities look to be a bit more limited in the 2018-19 season. At full strength, Ball and Rajon Rondo will combine to play all 48 minutes at point guard. If Ball misses more time with injury, Rondo will slot into the starting lineup (unless he is already the starter, which is a question for another day).
His backup minutes would presumably be filled by Lance Stephenson. The Lakers could also elect to play more combo guards or wings together and let LeBron James or Brandon Ingram run the offense without a traditional point guard on the floor. None of these scenarios leave a lot of room for Caruso, assuming the team avoids injury catastrophe.
Caruso is going to have to provide some new element to his game in order to see the floor in Staples Center. His NBA 3-point shooting was surprisingly worse than both Ball and Rondo last season, though he shot 38.7 percent from deep in the G League. Caruso also graded out as a plus defender by BPM, but doesn’t have the length or reputation of Rondo and Stephenson.
Ultimately, it seems Caruso’s greatest intrigue this season will be how he performs with the South Bay Lakers, which is no insignificant role. The Lakers have taken great care to link their NBA and G League franchises in philosophy, and South Bay helps to groom the greenest players on the roster.
Moe Wagner, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Isaac Bonga all figure to spend substantial time in the G League this year, and the progress they make could directly impact the big league team, particularly in the case of the former two. A good point guard makes all the difference in learning an offense, and Caruso had the second best offensive rating among guards in the G League last year and figures to make the transition to pro basketball much easier for the Laker rookies, and might be his most important and noteworthy role with the organization this year.
Still, Caruso seized every opportunity given to him last season to earn his spot on the Lakers this year. It would be unwise to count him out again, even if those opportunities are fewer and further between. Caruso is worth keeping an eye on, both for how much he’s able to work his way into the NBA rotation, and to see if he can help the Lakers’ rookies develop.
The countdown so far:
16. Alex Caruso
17. Travis Wear