Alex Caruso has quickly developed a cult following among Los Angeles Lakers fans, but he’s a lot more than just a meme. He’s a legit NBA player, and after an offseason that saw the Lakers re-sign Caruso on a two-year, $5.5 million deal that makes him the second-highest-paid traditional point guard on the team, Caruso is finally being paid like it.
And for a guy that spent his first three seasons of professional basketball mostly playing in the G League, signing that contract was a big deal, as he outlined to Chris McGee of Spectrum SportsNet:
“Really exciting. That was my goal, three years ago coming out of college. I went a different route, obviously, through the G League and two-way system. But I’m just really pleased. Not satisfied. (This is) not the end goal for me. But I’m happy to be in the door and be here full time.”
Caruso not being satisfied with this payday is great news for the Lakers, because how he plays this season will be key to the team reaching its full potential. Does that sound overdramatic to describe a roster that features Anthony Davis and LeBron James? Maybe a little, but while Caruso’s play won’t make or break the Lakers this year, it will certainly affect it, at the very least because of all the questions marks surrounding their other options.
Yes, the Lakers ostensibly have plenty of options at point guard, but all of them have their flaws. Quinn Cook is an incredible shooter and a heartwarming story, but whether he can shoot well enough to make up for his weaknesses in other areas remains to be seen. Rajon Rondo brings name recognition, veteran savvy and the respect of the locker room, but it’s less clear that those things will make up for his poor defense, a shot that doesn’t scare opponents and a lack of skills outside of passing. Talen Horton-Tucker is practically an infant by NBA standards, and Avery Bradley might start at point guard but he’s far from a sure thing (or a traditional point guard).
All this is not to crap on those guys, but to point out that Caruso’s more well-rounded skillset as a player who can play on or off the ball while defending like hell could be the glue to hold together quite a few different lineups. And it sounds like despite a payday that implies he’s proved himself, Caruso isn’t trying to change the balls-out playing style that endeared him to Lakers fans and allowed him to scrap and claw his way to a full-time NBA spot:
“Kind of the same thing,” Caruso told McGee of what he expects of his role. “Shoot whenever they get doubled, and be aggressive. Then just off the ball, be a great defender and play well in transition.”
Rather than change, he just wants to get better at what he was already doing:
“I think in all the facets of the game for me, there’s stuff I can do better. Whether I’m already pretty good at them or if I have a little room to grow. Continue to shoot the ball well, continue to make good decisions, and just continue to be a good teammate and play well defensively.”
One of the guys Caruso will presumably get a bit more of a chance to be a good teammate with this season is LeBron James, who he only got to play 147 minutes with last year. According to NBA.com, that made James and Caruso only the Lakers’ 69th most frequently played two-man pairing last season. That’s far from nice, considering lineups featuring the two scored 111.7 points per 100 possessions and held opponents to 102.6 — a net rating of 9.1 points per 100 possessions.
And all that’s without mentioning intangible things, like that Caruso and James have obvious chemistry both on and off the court:
..few of those passes weren’t bad— Alex Caruso (@ACFresh21) September 2, 2019
And if the above tweets and highlights don’t make it clear that Caruso enjoyed playing with James, then how he described the chance to team up with James should drive it home:
“He makes the game so easy for me. He gets so much attention, and rightfully so, I think he’s the best player in the world. He’s one of the best players the game has ever seen and maybe the best in the game right now. He just makes it so easy. He’s a really heady guy, understands the game, good IQ and I think me and him can kind of tag along in the same aspect of we both understand how to play, and we read off of each other pretty well.”
If Caruso’s shooting — 48% on threes, the best rate on the team among guys to play in more than four games — doesn’t regress too much on more attempts and he remains such a staunch defender and active cutter, then it would seem to reason that new Lakers head coach Frank Vogel would find plenty more chances for Caruso to team with James next season.
For a guy that just three years ago would have been preparing to start his first G League season after going undrafted, that’s a pretty incredible outcome. And if Caruso can punctuate that journey by helping the Lakers compete for a title this year, he’ll be a legend long after the memes about him stop.
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. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.