Last season, Alex Caruso became an NBA folk hero because of the juxtaposition of his appearance and physical abilities. He has as much hair as Homer Simpson at the top of his head, but he’s one of the most exciting in-game dunkers on the Lakers, if not in the entire league.
This season, Caruso has been the same human highlight reel he was last year, but he’s starting to establish himself as more than just Charlie Brown with hops. Through 20 regular season games, Caruso is posting the highest defensive rating on the Lakers — the team allows just 95.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, per NBA.com — which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that has watched him play this year.
Caruso talked to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com about how he’s been able to stand out on a team with so many elite veteran defenders, and his answer was revealing about his mentality:
MT: Fast forward to the present day, now. You’re leading the Lakers in individual defensive rating. How much of your defense is benefitting your teammates, and how much does having Dwight Howard or Anthony Davis anchoring your unit impact it …
Caruso: It’s a combo. I’ve always been a good defender, just because I have a want to stop the other person. I have a competitive edge in me where I get more mad when my guy scores than I do if I were to score 20. I find more joy out of frustrating the other team. I just want to win the game, and be the reason the other team is frustrated or can’t score. Whether that’s noticed or not, it doesn’t matter as long as I know I’m doing it and I’m having an impact. That’s what really counts. Then like you said, you have Dwight coming off the bench, former Defensive Player of the Year, it’s a deadly combo. Especially because me and him are in a majority of pick and rolls, I’m usually guarding the ballhandler or the better wing player, and he’s on the big setting the screens. I think that benefits our team. We also just have a good juice on the team of wanting to play defense. That’s hard to come by, partially because we know how good we can be and where we can be at the end of the year if we really care about it.
Caruso also talked about why he thinks he’s able to be so effective on the defensive end:
Caruso: Part of me being good on defense is that I’m a very good anticipator, and I’m very good mentally. I think the game out very well, and I can see stuff and recognize things that will help me have an advantage even when I don’t laterally or strength wise. I’m not like Avery (Bradley). Avery is an elite defender because he can just stay glued to you. He is laterally quick. He’s strong. He has good hands. As well as being smart, playing 10 years and knowing different coverages, different ways to guard people. But for me, it’s always been more about outthinking the other person. I haven’t always been faster, more athletic or stronger, and especially now, I’m not usually in the matchup. For me it’s about having good anticipation, knowing the player and what they like to do, and that comes with scouting and just seeing guys play, and then knowing where the help is.
Whatever he’s done, it’s worked for him so far, as he’s earned solid rotation minutes under Frank Vogel, who believes Caruso is a “star defender.” When the season started, it seemed likely that Caruso would get meaningful minutes because of his defense, but with how deep the Lakers are at both guard positions, it was far from a guarantee. As long as he’s this productive on the defensive end, he’ll see the floor.