After becoming a permanent part of the rotation for the Lakers down the stretch towards the end of a season that saw him spend most of his time in the G League, Alex Caruso made himself an essential player on the floor, even if losing seemed to be a better plan for L.A. late in the year.
Lottery odds were the furthest thing from Caruso’s mind as he fought for his NBA life however, and in his second season with the Lakers, he showed signs of tremendous growth since the 2017-18 season — something both he and the Lakers were happy to see.
“Obviously they’re happy with the way I progressed. If you would’ve told me two years ago that this is where I’d be when I signed the two-way contract at summer league, I think we’d all take it,” Caruso told reporters at his exit interview last week.
While playing in 12 fewer games this season than he did in the previous year, Caruso still posted career numbers in the 2018-19 season. Plus, the increase in minutes down the stretch offered a bigger sample size of Caruso’s ability to be a playmaker and a leader.
“That’s kind of who I am naturally, but I shied away from that a little early in my first year and a little bit earlier this year, so stepping into that role I think has just been a good end to the season for me,” Caruso said.
Caruso’s confidence grew with the time he spent on the court. Off the bench, Caruso averaged nearly 18 minutes per game, but averaged 39 minutes as a starter after moving into the lineup full-time for the Lakers’ final four games, culminating during the team’s 116-112 win against the Clippers.
In his ninth career start (and second of the season), Caruso dropped a career-high 32 points with 10 rebounds, five assists and two steals, with those 32 points being the most score by any two-way player this season.
“Obviously when you play well, you start to feel better and gain more confidence. It might just be shots going in, getting stops, falling on the floor. I don’t know what it is, but just playing carries more weight than sitting on the bench,” Caruso said.
Heading into a free agent market with elite players like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving available, the Lakers can make a splash like they did when they landed LeBron James. However, the team will also need to balance out the rest of their roster, and they could do a lot worse at backup point guard than Caruso, but if the team wants to keep him, they’ll probably have to offer more than another two-way deal.
Now that his two-way contract has expired, Caruso is eligible to sign a guaranteed NBA deal with any team that would keep him in the NBA for the full season. The Lakers can make him a restricted free agent by extending a qualifying offer that would allow them to match any contract another team offered Caruso or let him walk.
It’s not clear what the Lakers will ultimately do, but wherever he ends up, Caruso is looking forward to the full NBA opportunity he has (likely) earned by taking advantage of the chances he got on his two-way deal.
“I’m looking forward to hopefully getting more of that next year and doing it for a full season and seeing how much I can grow in that way,” Caruso said.