LOS ANGELES — When evaluating Alex Caruso, it’s hard not to slip into cliches. The Los Angeles Lakers guard is literally a gritty coach’s son who plays the right way, the stereotypical scrappy grinder on a two-way contract who has to fight for every opportunity he gets while constantly being tested by defenses who think they’re going to have an easy time against the slight, relatively anonymous white guy with wispy hair who’s facing them down.
Normally this is indicative of lazy writing — the paragraph above isn’t particularly profound or original — but slightly comforting is that it’s just as difficult for Caruso and the rest of the Lakers to avoid talking about him that way.
Take last Friday, for example, when I asked Caruso himself why he felt he had been having success since entering the rotation at the beginning of this month.
“Just playing hard. Being aggressive,” Caruso said. “Really just playing hard, I think that’s what it is.”
Okay... So he’s not wrong, but I wanted to see if I could get anything deeper than that from Lakers head coach Luke Walton. He got a little more into what has made Caruso so effective, but not without slipping into cliches himself.
“His competitive spirit,” Walton said, starting with strong coachspeak when answering what has allowed Caruso to find some success of late. “Defensively he was everywhere. He was switching, flying around, getting loose balls, and that’s what you want out of your guys that are going to play. If you’ve got something you can always hang your hat on while you’re out there, then you’re gonna help your team and I feel like he does that.”
Playing hard. Competitive spirt. Helps the team win. It was at the very least refreshing to find out I’m not the only one who struggles to describe what makes Caruso so helpful for the Lakers without resorting to banal stock phrases. The problem isn’t that these things aren’t true about Caruso — because they are — but they’re also easy.
But fine. If we can’t get at the why of Caruso’s strong play since getting some opportunities without resorting to cliches, we can at least try to get at just how good he’s been. We’re starting to get to the point where it’s no longer small sample size that the Lakers are never better than when Caruso plays — outscoring their opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com — and are 6.9 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits than when they are when he’s on the floor.
Caruso has still only played 250 minutes when some of his teammates are nearing 2,000, so there is some noise in those numbers, noise that increases because of how ineffective Rajon Rondo has been of late. Still, Caruso has mostly played at a point in the season in which the Lakers are losing nearly every game, and even when limiting the sample size to just games played in March — Caruso’s main time in the rotation — the Lakers are 17.8 points per 100 possessions better during Caruso’s time on the floor.
He’s also developed a nice chemistry with LeBron James. The Lakers have outscored their opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions when those two share the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, culminating in a memorable sequence in the team’s win over the Sacramento Kings in which James threw a superhumanly accurate bounce pass to hit Caruso for a somehow-just-as-impressive reverse layup that served as (essentially) the dagger to hold off the hard-charging Kings.
I'm still thinking about this play over 14 hours later pic.twitter.com/2DZi5TbSnf— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) March 25, 2019
Even this connection, though, Caruso mainly just describes in clinical coachspeak.
“He’s a really good player, and I just see when the cuts are open, when the lanes are open. I have a good knack for seeing that. Nine times out of ten... actually, ten times out of ten, if you make the run, they’re -- especially LeBron -- gonna hit you with the pass,” Caruso said. “I saw it, he saw it. I just got ready for it, caught it and made the layup.”
All this isn’t to suggest Caruso is some secret MVP candidate. He would probably be the first to tell you that. But what Caruso has seemed to show is that he’s an NBA player, and Walton agreed (with another cliche thrown in for good measure).
”Right now (he’s proven that). It’s small sample size, but right now the way he’s playing, he could definitely help teams win ball games,” Walton said.
As for Caruso, he’s not so sure.
”Prove is an interesting word, because it’s always a job applications for me. I’m not on a roster, so every time I go out and play I technically need to prove I deserve to be there, so whether I have or haven’t really isn’t up to me. If it was, I would already be on an NBA team, but the guys who give out the contracts are hopefully watching,” Caruso said, before punctuating his cautious optimism with another one of the platitudes that pepper the way everyone talks about him.
“I’m gonna just keep playing hard and doing what I’m doing.”
That approach is working so far, and proving that sometimes positive cliches aren’t so bad when they’re accurate.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.