Sometimes, perseverance pays off. In the case of Alex Caruso, not giving up on his NBA dream after going undrafted out of Texas A&M has paid off in a big way.
He’s no longer a G-League call-up nor a two-way player, but a full-time NBA athlete with a guaranteed deal on a Los Angeles Lakers team that features LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
And Caruso landing a starting job isn’t out of the question, either. Imagine that, the kid who no one wanted on draft night and spent the last three seasons playing in front of G-League crowds could wind up starting for a team with legitimate championship aspirations.
For die-hard Lakers fans, Caruso has been a favorite ever since the 2017 Las Vegas Summer League when he stepped in for an injured Lonzo Ball and outdueled De’Aaron Fox and the Sacramento Kings and then helped lead them to a championship. Caruso’s performance resulted in him being awarded the team’s first-ever two-way deal.
During the 2017-2018 NBA season, Caruso bounced between the G League and NBA, acting as an emergency fill-in whenever Ball was unable to go.
He always brought toughness, pesky defense, and solid playmaking, but his 30% shooting from the three-point line simply wasn’t good enough. Still, a strong performance during the 2018 Summer League was enough to prove he was worth keeping around, and the Lakers brought him back on another two-way deal.
After seeing only a handful of cameo appearances in the early months of the 2018-2019 season, fate came knocking. Ball was lost due to a sprained ankle and the Lakers — after trying to get by for a few games without a true ball handler — decided they needed another point guard.
Caruso got an opportunity that he had been waiting for: a chance to play with everything on the line. On his second two-way deal, failure could have sealed his fate and slammed the door shut on the possibility of a full-time NBA deal.
Instead, Caruso stepped up in a big way. Over the final 25 games of the season, he quieted the concerns about his shooting by knocking down a ridiculous 48% of his threes. It’s not a sustainable number but it suggests that — combined with his 80% shooting from the free-throw line — he can indeed be a floor spacer for the team’s offense.
In the trying days of another lost season — one which saw the Lakers beaten down by a merciless injury bug — Caruso played each game like it was his last, hurling his 6’5” frame to the floor for loose balls and crashing into larger defenders in order to earn trips to the line. He used intelligent cuts to free himself for James’ pinpoint-accurate passes and made sure to return the favor whenever James filled a lane on the break.
While not a great finisher at the rim, Caruso showcased a variety of creative scoops over larger defenders and has enough bounce to dunk all over anyone who forgets about him (shoutout to Kevin Durant).
Caruso’s inspiring run culminated in a monstrous game against the Los Angeles Clippers that saw him put up 32 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists, becoming the only Laker other than James to reach those numbers all season.
As the season came to a close, Caruso had proved that not only could he hang with NBA talent, but he could thrive. The Lakers rewarded him in July with a two-year, $5.5 million deal.
The deal essentially allows the Lakers to protect themselves in the event that Caruso’s performance last season was a fluke or simply the product of a hot shooting streak. Worst-case if things don’t work out, Caruso’s deal isn’t for much more than the league minimum, making it relatively easy to move in a pinch.
On the other hand, if Caruso is the real deal, his production would have put him in a similar tier as Cory Joseph and Delon Wright, who both signed three-year deals worth $37 million and $29 million, respectively. To land that kind of production for just $5.5 million would be an absolute steal.
But could he actually start?
Given the roster the Lakers have, it might make some sense. James is the de facto point guard on offense and with Davis and DeMarcus Cousins also possessing ball-handling capabilities, the Lakers could opt to start a massive lineup of arguably the team’s five best players: James, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Davis, and Cousins.
However, that lineup doesn’t feature anyone who could be comfortable defending opposing point guards full-time, so head coach Frank Vogel could instead opt to bring Kuzma off the bench and start one of Caruso, Rajon Rondo, Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley, or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The key would be finding someone to play a Derek Fisher-like role: someone who can defend opposing point guards, knock down open shots, and would be comfortable acting as a second or third-option initiator behind James and Davis.
Of that group, Caruso is the least-experienced, but he does offer arguably the most well-rounded combination of shooting, playmaking, and defense. Plus, he has the benefit of already showcasing solid chemistry alongside James.
Rondo may be the biggest name, Cook the best shooter, Bradley (when healthy) the best defender, and Caldwell-Pope the best scorer, but don’t count out Caruso.
He has a wonderful habit of proving his doubters wrong.