Editor’s Note: This is “Underdog Week” at SB Nation, so for the next few days we’ll be taking a look at some of the biggest underdog stories around the Los Angeles Lakers. Today, we appreciate Alex Caruso.
In 2017, the NBA introduced two-way contracts, which allow teams to sign up to two players that they can call up from their G League affiliate teams for no more than 45 days out of the season. The Los Angeles Lakers used their first-ever two way contract on Alex Caruso, an undrafted point guard out of Texas A&M University.
Caruso declared for the NBA Draft after his senior season with the Aggies in 2016. In his final collegiate campaign, Caruso used quick hands to lead the SEC in steals for the third consecutive season, and was named to the SEC’s All-Defensive team as a result. He also led the SEC in assists in two of the four years he played at Texas A&M.
Despite his accomplishments at the collegiate level, Caruso didn’t hear his name called on draft night because of concerns regarding what position he’d play at the next level. While Caruso was capable of playing point guard, he played his best basketball when he was the secondary facilitator. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it left him short of the resume necessary to be one of the 60 players selected in the draft — especially without a reliable 3-point jumper, which Caruso didn’t have at the time.
Three years later, Caruso struggles with a lot of the same things, but his value as a secondary playmaker and defender has shined through on a star-studded Lakers team that’s benefitted heavily from both qualities.
In 58 appearances for the Lakers this season, Caruso has posted a net rating of +10.3, which is the highest net rating on the team and the ninth-best rating among all players that have averaged at least 15 minutes per game this season, according to NBA.com.
It’s easy to look at those numbers and minimize them to the fact that he’s played almost half of his minutes with LeBron James, who’s also posted a +10.3 net rating this season, but there are players that have played almost 300 more minutes with James that haven’t come close to posting the +20.8 net rating Caruso and James have posted in the 485 minutes they’ve played together this season.
That’s because Caruso’s style of play is the perfect complement to a ball-dominant star like James. Unlike Rajon Rondo, another ball-dominant playmaker, Caruso is active when he’s off the ball, tirelessly jetting around the court while setting hard screens to try and get James and or one of his teammates an open shot. Caruso has generated 57 points off of screen assists this season, which is ranked seventh among point guards, per NBA.com.
When Caruso does have the ball, he tries not to waste any time with it, averaging just 1.5 seconds per possession this season. For context, Rondo has averaged 4.1 seconds per possession this season, and he’s averaged fewer points per touch than Caruso despite that fact.
On the defensive end, Caruso has been especially valuable, posting a team-high defensive rating of 100.3. His 100.3 defensive rating is also the eighth-best defensive rating among players that have appeared in at least 20 games this season. According to Cleaning the Class, the Lakers are 3.4 points per 100 possessions better on the defensive end with Caruso on the court, which puts him in the 76th percentile in defensive efficiency.
Those are all good things.
Caruso still has room to grow as a scorer and a ball-handler, but the player he is right now can be a valuable contributor on a championship team. When you consider the fact that he was playing the bulk of his games in the G League just a year ago, that’s commendable.
To put into perspective how significant it is that Caruso is still on roster, the Lakers have signed eight different players to two-way contracts since the contracts were introduced in the 2017 offseason. Out of those eight players, Caruso is the only that has signed a fully-guaranteed, multi-million dollar contract in the NBA.
Can a large part of Caruso’s popularity among Lakers fans — and his own teammates — be attributed to the stark contrast between his physical appearance and physical ability? Absolutely, but I’d also like to think it’s because of how hard they saw Caruso work to get from the G League to the NBA.
In a league filled with inspiring storylines, Caruso’s journey with the Lakers is the quintessential underdog story, and we can only hope that it continues with a champagne-soaked headband at the end of this season.