Editor’s Note: As the season gets closer, our Silver Screen and Roll staff is going to be taking a closer look back at every player on the Lakers for a refresher on stuff we may have forgotten during quarantine. Think of this as like the 30 second clip reminding you of what happened during the current season of your favorite TV show that rolls right before the latest episode starts. Today, let’s recall what was up with Alex Caruso.
For someone that averages 5.4 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists and a steal per game with unimpressive shooting splits, Alex Caruso has quite a following. A large part of that has to do with the fact that he looks like a youth camp counselor and can dunk, but it’s also because he’s just a good and fun basketball player, which is all he’s needed to be on this year’s star-studded Lakers team.
Caruso’s impact starts on the defensive end. By nearly every metric, Caruso isn’t just one of the best defensive guards on the Lakers; he’s one of the best defensive guards in the NBA. According to ESPN, Caruso has the 20th-best defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) in the NBA (+1.54). The only guards with a higher DRPM are Avery Bradley (+1.71), Kris Dunn (+1.79), Gary Harris (1.89) and Patrick Beverley (+2.58).
Caruso also ranks first among point guards in defensive RAPTOR (+4.5), according to FiveThirtyEight, which puts him fifth among all players alongside Clint Capela. Rounding out the top five is Willie Cauley-Stein (+4.6), Jonathan Isaac (+4.8), Gorgui Dieng (+5.4) and Rudy Gobert (+6.6).
When you take into account that Caruso has spent the majority of his minutes with Anthony Davis this season, that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. However, there are six players that have spent more time on the court with Davis — Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and LeBron James — that the numbers don’t rank as highly. What separates Caruso from the rest of the pack?
Two words: Responsibility and capability.
Caruso is better equipped to defend another team’s best guard than the team’s other reserve guards like Rajon Rondo and Quinn Cook because of his age (26) and size (6’5”). His high basketball IQ is the reason he’s such a good defender, but it would be harder for him to do the things he does on defense without his foot speed and agility. That’s especially true given his average wingspan (6’5”) for his height.
Caruso has also had the luxury of being a specialist whenever he’s been on the floor for the Lakers this season. In the lineup Caruso’s spent the most time with this season, he hasn’t been the primary ball-hander, nor has he been the first, second or even third scoring option. That’s not say he can’t handle the ball or score; it’s just that he has teammates that can do those things better than he can, which allows him to focus on the things he’s actually good at, like putting pressure on opposing players, setting screens and moving the ball.
Caruso’s unique skillset is what has made him such a tremendous fit next to James and Davis. According to NBA.com, the three-man lineup of Caruso, James and Davis has posted a net rating of +19.4 in the 229 minutes they’ve played together. The only three-man lineup with a higher net rating on the Lakers is one that features Caruso, James and Dwight Howard. The latter three-man lineup is ranked seventh in the NBA (minimum 200 minutes played) in net rating (+21.7).
Additionally, the two-man lineup of Caruso and James (+20.8) has the highest net rating of any two-man lineup that has played at least 400 minutes together. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe are ranked second with a net rating of +18.9.
Caruso has been the perfect role player for the Lakers this season, but with Avery Bradley deciding not to make the trip to Orlando, he’ll need to be more to stay on the floor.
As productive as Caruso’s been as a complementary player this season, he’s struggled to stand out on his own, particularly as a scorer, which is what he’ll need to do more if he wants to replace Bradley in the starting lineup.
Caruso’s shot 42.3% from the field this season — a number that’s inflated by the 66.3% he’s shot in the restricted area, where the majority of his baskets come from. On jump shots, Caruso’s shot 31.5% from the field, including 21.4% from mid-range and 35.5% from 3-point range. That’s not great, especially when compared to Bradley, who shot a higher percentage from 3-point range (36.4%) and mid-range (44%). Bradley was especially adept with the pull up jump shot, making 45.8% of his attempts compared to Caruso’s 34.4%.
Bradley wasn’t a go-to scorer, and Caruso doesn’t need to be either. However, he does need to make his open shots and, on occasion, make something out of nothing. If he doesn’t, someone like Dion Waiters, Quinn Cook or J.R. Smith, who the Lakers have been linked to, could eat into his playing time.
Caruso has been better than he’s been given credit for this season — at least among the general NBA fanbase — but the Bald Eagle has an opportunity to spread his wings with Bradley sidelined for the remainder of the season. Hopefully, he’ll rise to the occassion.