Two years ago, Alex Caruso was grinding out in the G League with the South Bay Lakers with the hope of landing a full-time job with the senior team. During his time with South Bay, Caruso and his teammates were required by the coaching staff to enthusiastically deliver motivational speeches written by an outside consultant to their teammates at least one time during the season.
“Get your mind right!” Caruso screamed to his South Bay teammates when it was his turn. “Rarely does the person who competes with their heads, as well as their body, come in second!”
Two years later, Caruso is giving similar pep talks to his teammates, but he’s doing it in the Western Conference Finals on a team that’s considered the favorite to win the NBA Finals. Suffice to say, a lot has changed for Caruso, but at the same time, not a lot has.
“He’s grown, but to me Alex, when we used to play against each other when he was in the South Bay, he was always a high-IQ guy for me, and I picked that up right away,” Rajon Rondo said. “His defense on the ball, his presence, his communication was always a standout for me. And that’s what he takes pride in.
“So his growth, his confidence, coming into these types of environments, playing against Dame, CJ, Westbrook and Harden, he’s taken the challenge. He’s never backed down from anybody when I’ve seen him play, and I love playing with him. He’s a great guy to have on the floor, a great teammate. He’s always vocal, and he knows what he’s talking about.”
Caruso emerging as leading voice in the locker room is one of the most surprising developments of the season. I mean, LeBron James didn’t even know who Caruso was a year ago.
But being a relative unknown and one of the younger players on the team didn’t stop Caruso from being his usual, vocal self. To him, speaking up is just another way that he can help the team.
“I don’t know why I am the way that I am, but I’m just really competitive man,” Caruso said. “And if there’s something I think needs to be said to win I’m gonna do It. I’m not going to leave any stone unturned to get the job done.”
Talking is the easy part, though. The hard part is getting people to listen, which Caruso’s been able to do by simply playing his game.
While Caruso’s stats aren’t eye-popping on the surface, the Lakers are a better team with him on the floor. In the 290 minutes Caruso has played in the postseason, the Lakers have held opponents to 101.4 points per 100 possessions. With Caruso off the floor, they’ve allowed 108.4 points per 100 possessions.
On offense, the Lakers have been slightly better with Caruso off of the floor, but he still has one of the better point differentials on the team (+5.6) in spite of that. He’s earned the respect of his teammates, LeBron James included.
“When you try to play high-level basketball, you’ve got to have high-IQ players, and he’s one of them,” James said. “And not only does he have a high-level IQ, he also plays with high energy, and we know what we’re going to get out of him every night. It’s not about him making shots. But we know he’s going to defend and he’s going to play at the level that he’s capable of playing at.
“And to be honest, when he makes shots it’s extra credit for us,” James continued. “But he puts that work in on his offensive skill set to get better and better, and we love everything about him.”
Caruso may have first become a social media sensation due to his appearance, but he’s proven he’s also so much more than Twitter’s favorite basketball player to his teammates and fans in the year that has passed. And if he continues to compete with his head, as well as his body, it’s hard to imagine that the Lakers will come in second.