Alex Caruso is an NBA player. He proved that with the way he closed out the 2018-19 season, and the Los Angeles Lakers rewarded him with his first-ever NBA contract last summer — a two-year deal worth $5.5 million. Caruso continued to prove his worth in the regular season, but he’s taken his game to another level in the NBA playoffs.
In the regular season, Caruso posted a defensive rating of 100, which was the highest defensive rating of anyone on the team that averaged more than 10 minutes per game. In the postseason, his defensive rating has improved to 98.8, which is still the highest defensive rating on the team. When Caruso has been on the bench, the Lakers have posted a defensive rating of 108.9, which is the second-biggest drop-off (-10.1) in defensive rating behind Anthony Davis (-12.3), the latter of whom finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
It took a little while for Caruso to get comfortable in the bubble environment, but he’s starting to settle in, both on and off the court.
“I think I’m just being more aggressive,” Caruso said. “I think that’s really the only thing that’s changed. I think I’m not shying away from showing my competitiveness and just kind of playing how I know how to play. There were spurts of that this year.
“And maybe Rondo being out helped me get to that point, put a little more on my shoulders, a little more responsibility and helped push myself to a point to where I was just out there playing rather than thinking about what I should be doing,” Caruso continued. “Since I’ve been doing that, and we’ve added Rondo back, it’s been great for us and great for me. I just (need) to be the competitive and aggressive self that I am and live with my mistakes.”
Caruso’s also had to adjust to the intensity of playoff basketball. After years of grinding it out in the G League, Caruso has been getting regular minutes for Frank Vogel’s side in the playoffs, and while the games haven’t been what Caruso imagined they’d be before the season started, he still relishes in the competitive spirit of the postseason.
“It’s been a little different,” Caruso said. “I was really looking forward to playing in the atmosphere of Staples Center and all of these other arenas with the fans and having the intensity of the playoffs be exactly what I’d seen on the TV growing up and as a young professional, but you can still feel it.
“When the ball goes up and you’re out there playing, the energy of the game and the do-or-die mentality and sense of urgency is still there. It’s been a lot fun to be a part of. That’s kind of how I always kind of play basketball. Obviously the stakes aren’t always as high as this, so it’s nice to have something to play for and to have this group of guys to be able to go after the goal with.”
The one area that Caruso could improve in is his 3-point shooting.
Through 10 games, Caruso has converted just 28.1% of his 3-point attempts, which is the worst 3-point shooting percentage of anyone on the team that’s attempted at least three 3-pointers per game.
Despite his cold shooting, Caruso has managed to post a top-five net rating on the Lakers (+13), and that’s a big reason why Frank Vogel hasn’t been too concerned about Caruso’s shooting percentages.
“His shooting is about 10th on the list of positive things he does for our team. He’s an elite defender, he can guard multiple positions,” Vogel said. “There are so many defenders where you’re either an elite containment guy or you’re elite in the passing lanes, at getting deflections and steals. And he’s both.
“And then he takes charges and has great verticality, so what he does for our defense is immeasurable,” Vogel continued. “His versatility offensively is a huge plus for us as well, with his ability to play off the basketball. To make plays off the bounce (and) to run the point.”
Vogel also believes that Caruso will knock his 3-pointers down eventually, citing the fact that Caruso shot 48% from 3-point range last season. While that might not end up being the case, Caruso is converting a respectable 38.1% of his wide-open attempts and 41% of his open attempts, according to NBA.com.
Is Caruso a glorified role player? Maybe, but there’s a reason there’s so much hype around him, and it’s not just because he looks like a fit insurance agent — at least not anymore. The Lakers are a better basketball team when Caruso is on the floor, and if they win a championship at the end of the season, he’ll be remembered as a key contributor.