The Los Angeles Lakers have a point guard problem, and unfortunately for them, it’s not a new issue.
They took a big step towards fixing that problem in 2017, when they drafted Lonzo Ball with the No. 2 overall pick, but Ball struggled to stay healthy during his rookie season, playing just 47 games.
Then, last summer, the Lakers signed Rajon Rondo to a one-year, $9 million deal with the hope that he could backup Ball, but he, too, has dealt nagging injuries this season and, as a result, he and Ball have shared the court just 14 times this season. With Ball expected to miss the rest of the season with a bone bruise, that number won’t go up.
In Ball’s extended absence, Rondo has soaked up almost all of the playing time at point guard for the Lakers, but he’s struggled to have the positive impact on the team he had earlier in the season. Through seven games in the month of March, Rondo is a posting a net rating of -13.4, which is being weighed down by his 116.4 defensive rating.
However, in losing Ball, the Lakers also found a gem that was hiding in plain sight in Alex Caruso.
The Lakers signed Caruso to a two-way contract in July of 2017, and he became a fan favorite upon arrival because of his effort on the defensive end and his knack for making plays. Due to the number of ball handlers and playmakers on this year’s roster, though, Caruso has spent most of his second season as a Lakers two-way contract player in the G League with the South Bay Lakers.
It wasn’t until just recently that Caruso started seeing playing time with the parent team again, and he’s made the most of his opportunities. On Thursday night against the Toronto Raptors, the 25-year-old scored a career-high 16 points on 5-7 shooting from the field and dished out five assists.
Rondo ended the night with a similar box score — 13 points and eight assists — but he posted a -15 box plus-minus. Caruso posted a -3, which, despite being a negative, was the third-highest among anyone on the team that played at least 10 minutes.
Following the game, Walton had high praise for Caruso for the way he competed on both ends against the Raptors.
“He’s a very good basketball player. He understands how to play. When teams try are going to switch everything, he knows how to take advantage of that,” Walton told reporters on Spectrum Sportsnet. “He’s got good size on him, he can attack the paint and I think playing with guys like LeBron and guys like Rondo, who can find him when he gets open like that helps him out, and then defensively he always competes his tail off.”
Caruso agreed that playing with Rondo and James has made the game easier on him.
“You’re playing with Rajon Rondo and LeBron James, two of the greatest passers to ever play the game — definitely of our era. If you keep moving, they’re going to make the right read and they’re both pass-first guys, so I know whenever I’m out there to be aggressive,” Caruso said after the game.
However, Caruso admitted that the Raptors didn’t make things too hard on him, either.
“In the first half, they just weren’t guarding me. I was just taking layups, just cutting off of ‘Bron. They gave him a lot of attention so I was just playing off of that and then threes are just an open transition. I shoot those every day,” Caruso said. “I found a rhythm by making layups and just staying aggressive with it.”
In other words, Caruso took what the defense gave him, which is just the way he likes it. To him, scoring is the last thing he’s worry about when he’s on the floor.
“I’m always confident that I can play. Tonight, the ball just went in the hole. Any time I score, it’s just an added bonus to my game. The things that I’m really good at are playing defense, getting my teammates open and just being a good teammate, doing the intangible stuff,” Caruso said.
“Any time I score that I score, that’s just kind of a bonus for us. No lack of confidence from it, no extra confidence from it, just another game and tonight it happened to be 16 points, or whatever it was.”
As is the case with any player that is called up from the G League at this stage of the season, Caruso will use the remaining games on the schedule to prove that he belongs in the NBA. If he continues to show steady growth to close out the season, it’s hard to imagine him not garnering any interest from teams this summer, whether the Lakers decide to try to bring him back or not.
All quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Christian on Twitter at @RadRivas.