Phenomenal. Eye-Popping. Tenacious. These were just a few of the glowing adjectives used to describe Lakers guard Alex Caruso in his DraftExpress scouting report ahead of the 2016 NBA Draft. That may be surprising to some who didn’t see the unheralded, undrafted guard coming, but the praise is indicative of the on-court abilities that Caruso is still trying to hone and prove to this day.
After finishing four collegiate seasons and setting all-time records in assists and steals at native Texas A&M, the lanky guard set out to do what so many before him have attempted, and failed to achieve — play in the NBA.
On that anxious night of the draft in Brooklyn, Caruso would not be amongst the 60 players who had their dreams fulfilled by being selected. He would not walk that illustrious stage, he would not shake the commissioner’s hand, nor would he hear his name called.
But three years later, Caruso would sign a multi-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers and in the process, see a phoenix-like mythology that was crafted in his honor by fans of the team become reality in front of his very own eyes.
But the cruel reality of expectations for an athlete is that once they are exceeded, there is no returning to the moment before they were birthed. A new standard has been set, and later tattooed in the form of a contract as a reminder of the benchmarks that should be met, if not hurdled over again. It’s a treacherous cycle that Caruso is on the precipice of.
After wowing and stealing the hearts of the Lakers’ fanbase in his limited playing time over the past few seasons, the team committed two years and $5.5 million — actual NBA money and a non-two-way roster spot — to Caruso over the summer. It was a signal that a player who was intertwined with tongue-in-cheek hyperbole and countless memes and nicknames should now be taken seriously.
And although preseason basketball shouldn’t be overanalyzed, there have already been indications both on and off the court that suggest Caruso is beginning to feel the pressure to perform.
Caruso shot a mere 24% from the field (worst amongst Lakers who attempted at least ten shots) and coughed up a team-high 18 turnovers in his 118 minutes played during the exhibition stage. While the numbers alone should not be the central cause for concern, the visual manner in which Caruso pressed and was utilized was far more troubling.
Often slapping his hands in frustration after a bad pass, wildly bulldozing into traffic and routinely getting his shots stuffed from opposing guards and bigs alike, the overall viewing experience and the composure of the fan-favorite felt different. It very much had the appearance of a player trying to imitate someone or something else.
”I’ve just been focused on making the right reads and trying to be aggressive. I really don’t think I’ve been doing that well of a job personally”, Caruso told reporters last week. “I know it’s preseason, and I’m kind of getting back in the swing of things, but I want to be playing better, so hopefully I use these last two games to round into form for next Tuesday.”
It’s difficult to argue that Caruso has succeeded in accomplishing what he says he set out to do — and to be fair, it seems even he would make the opposite argument right now. He has dished out 25 assists (tied with LeBron James for team honors) but as his aforementioned high turnover rate and low efficiency numbers suggest, he’s also made misreads.
One potential variable that could be driving him to press besides living up to his new contract and the fanfare he’s received could be the raised stakes.
Caruso no longer has the benefits that come with playing freely on a mostly young and lax team. Nor does he have the “just go out and play” essence that comes with playing in garbage time and in games with no playoff implications.
That changes this season as the Lakers will have clear and legitimate championship aspirations when the ball gets tipped Tuesday night. Anyone who takes the floor will be expected to augment such expectations.
There is reason to wonder how many minutes Caruso will see under new Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. Although he tallied the most minutes of any point guard on the roster this preseason, Caruso also received minimal run with the expected starters. More prominently, he get close to no exposure next to James and Anthony Davis. A potential red flag for those pining for the guard to start.
When asked about Caruso’s struggles, Vogel said Caruso shouldn’t beat himself up for his play too much, and seemed to understand the context of it.
“First of all, he hasn’t shot the ball well, but he’s played pretty well. Especially on the defensive end,” Vogel told reporters during a recent shootaround.
“And I’m not really measuring too much on the last two games in light of the difficult circumstances in China and the difficult circumstances with the trip back from China, and playing basically 48 hours later. I’ll reserve basically any real evaluations from those games, understanding that those are both difficult circumstance types of games. I’m not unhappy with his play.”
While obviously struggling on offense, Caruso has once again been one of the standouts on the team on the defensive end, and easily projects to be the best defensive option amongst the other point guards on the roster. Caruso’s absurd hustle and instincts will likely allow that to translate to when the games start to count.
In terms of the other contextual facets Vogel mentioned, they likely too have also played a role, but the head coach also shares some blame, as he has not done his point guard any favors in terms of his deployment.
Amongst Caruso’s play-type frequency in the preseason, 41.5% of his offense has come as the pick and roll ball-handler, according to Synergy. Within those possessions, he has converted only two of his 12 field-goal attempts.
When combining his passes out of these chances as well, his pick-and-roll-derived offense has a cumulative 20.8% conversion rate from the field. That’s not great.
Even tracing back to last year, Caruso has performed much better as an off-ball threat rather than having to serve as the team’s primary creator, posting higher points per possession on nearly every other play-type besides pick and rolls. It’s another reason why he excelled playing beside James last season, and potentially why he has struggled thus far.
To make a brutal start to the year even worse, Caruso also suffered a “bone-contusion” in his pelvis during the team’s final preseason contest against the Warriors after suffering a rough landing on a lay-up attempt.
He is now day-to-day, and the injury only further emphasizes that this has been about as unfortunate of a beginning as possible to the 25-year-old’s year. Hopefully just a blip in what will be an otherwise successful campaign.
There is no question that Caruso’s path has been one of the most unique and successful routes in recent league memory when comparing it to the initial expectations for him. From going undrafted that night in Brooklyn, to playing with a game-seven-like intensity against De’Aaron Fox in Summer League and then serving up a seismic poster on Kevin Durant, it has all led him to this moment. It has all helped write the myth of CarusGAWD.
However, for as enjoyable the social-media campaign has been, and as popular he has become, it is has been on the back of his tireless hard-work. From chasing after loose balls to making winning play after winning play, Caruso has earned his spot in the league.
He has show he’s a capable and damn good NBA player when he plays his game. It will be up to his teammates, his coaching staff and ultimately himself to make sure he continues to do what has gotten him here.
Because the hardwood is his version of the Barclays Center stage he never got to walk, his teammates’ hands are the ones he now gets to shake after making a crucial play and the screaming fans are the ones that will make sure his name get’s called so he never forgets it.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.