Alex Caruso’s meteoric rise from undrafted free agent, to a leader on the G League’s South Bay Lakers, to cracking the Los Angeles Lakers’ rotation, to becoming a valuable contributor on a LeBron James title team endeared him to fans in Southern California and across the country.
Caruso’s relentless, defense-first play style and phenomenal on-court fit with James made losing him to the Chicago Bulls in free agency last summer a bitter pill to swallow for Lakers fans, and the reported circumstances around his departure didn’t exactly ease the pain, either.
But while Lakers executives may not have valued Caruso enough to pay him themselves, they were also using him as an example to sell to other undrafted free agents — players like Austin Reaves — about what their franchise could do for them in terms of fit and exposure, according to Bill Oram of The Athletic:
[South Bay Lakers president Joey] Buss and other Lakers and South Bay executives sold [Austin Reaves] on their developmental program. They had a tangible, thrilling example to point to: Caruso, who was days away from signing a $37 million contract with Chicago.
“The agent and Austin really liked what they heard, really bought into the idea that he could be successful in this role, the same way Caruso was,” Buss said. “He did it much quicker than we anticipated.”
To be clear, it’s not as though Caruso’s success in his role on the Lakers was some carefully guarded secret. After all, we’re talking about a player who started the close-out game of the 2020 NBA Finals. In Mirin Fader’s fantastic recent profile of Reaves for The Ringer, she reported that when Reaves’ agents ranked second-round teams and possible undrafted free agency destinations in the 2021 NBA Draft in terms of fit, they ranked the Lakers first, and it’s not hard to imagine that Caruso’s success played a part in that. That’s probably why Reaves told teams not to draft him so he could join the Lakers on a two-way deal.
It’s striking, though, to hear a member of the Buss family and one of the Lakers organization’s most prominent decision-makers outside of Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka
and Rich Paul speak so freely about how successful Caruso was with the Lakers so soon after they let him walk to Chicago, when they could have easily re-signed him to a similar or even less expensive contract. But Joey Buss really does feel like Caruso’s rise gave them an advantage in luring Reaves:
Like Reaves, Caruso was undrafted. He spent a year in the G League with the Oklahoma City Blue before signing a two-way with the Lakers, earning the trust of coaches over time with his tenacity and defensive commitment, becoming a fan favorite and dependable role player, ultimately starting the Game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals to help the Lakers clinch the title.
“That story unfolded very well for us,” Joey Buss said. “He got opportunity, and I think he proved that these two-way players from the G League or that are undrafted can develop for a team and become an asset. And I think that story then becomes a sales pitch for when we want to sign undrafted rookies that we’re interested in after the draft.”
Putting aside the irony of using the success of a guy you just let walk in free agency as a sales pitch in order to attract younger and cheaper replacements, the Lakers do seem to have found another solid undrafted player in Reaves.
Just 17 games into his NBA career, Reaves has proven himself as a solid defender on an aging, offense-heavy team that desperately needs as many players like that as they can get. He’s also shown the ability to knock down open shots when asked, specifically when he went 5-6 from the three-point line and hit the game-winning shot in overtime in the Lakers’ victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday.
Caruso, though, has become an invaluable sixth man on a very good Bulls team, reuniting with former Lakers teammate Lonzo Ball to form one of the best defensive backcourt tandems in the NBA. The Bulls started the season 17-10, including a blowout win over the Lakers in Caruso’s return to Staples Center, before having their season suspended due to a number of players (including Caruso) entering COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Would the Lakers be a better team right now if they kept Caruso? Probably. With not one, but two ball-dominant superstars now in James and Russell Westbrook, Caruso’s primary skills of defending at the point of attack and making the right cut without the ball in his hands on offense would be a perfect fit around them.
But Reaves’ emergence as a somewhat similar type of NBA player — who was also a very good ballhandler in college at Wichita State and Oklahoma — is another testament to Joey Buss and the Lakers’ already spectacular track record of identifying and developing overlooked talent. And on a team with three max-contract players in James, Westbrook and Anthony Davis, their ability to do so is more valuable than ever.