Alex Caruso is well known to a national audience because he plays in Los Angeles and his acrobatic high-flying finishes often land him on top play packages of all kinds on a nightly basis. As fate would have it, however, that’s only a small part of who he is, and by no means does that mean his path to get here was any easier.
At 6’5″ and 186 pounds, Caruso doesn’t exactly look the part of someone who can rise up with ease. But such ability stems from the work he put in as a youngster, and the maturity he exhibits and the respect he commands is granted thanks to a strong upbringing.
“He’s a coach’s (longtime Texas A&M Associate Athletics Director for Game Management Mike Caruso) son. Alex has an incredible IQ and I think a lot of that comes from being a coach’s son,” said former Texas A&M assistant and Memphis Hustle head coach Glynn Cyprien. “We recruited him, he was our first recruit, a top 100 player and a local kid. What stood out was his IQ and athleticism. You hear the term ‘sneaky athleticism’ and that just epitomizes who he is. People don’t realize he was a track jumper, so he had athleticism back then. His anticipation on defense, long arms, long stride, ability to run through passes and cut off the passing lane, was like no other.”
Caruso’s ability to leave the crowd (and teammates on the bench) in awe is one thing. Make no mistake, he’s earned respect from a roster full of NBA superstars and champions (LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Danny Green, and Quinn Cook, to name a few) because of the way he carries himself. Caruso is about winning at all costs.
“I think what makes Alex special is his competitiveness and his ability to communicate and lead. That’s what he exemplified with us from day one, dating back to NBA Summer League and then when we signed him to a Two-Way contract,” South Bay Lakers head coach Coby Karl said. “As our two seasons progressed, his willingness to put himself out there in front of the group — his leadership through vocal and effort standpoints — were his strengths.”
“Even his first year as a Two-Way, he was probably one of the most vocal leaders in Lakers’ training camp,” Coach Karl revealed. “Being a leader comes natural to Alex. That’s who he is. He’s a winner. It doesn’t matter who he’s on the floor with.”
After spending the 2016-17 season with the OKC Blue, Caruso had signed a Two-Way contract with the Lakers for the upcoming campaign. That meant while he was able to partake in NBA training camp, the most he would spend with the club during the season was 45 days. There were no guarantees for anything else, but the amount of time he spent with his NBA counterparts didn’t matter to Caruso. He was going to make his presence felt regardless, and that mentality continued into his next training camp as well (2018-19). One year wiser but still on a Two-Way contract, Caruso was sharing the practice floor with LeBron James and was still as vocal as ever.
“He earned LeBron’s respect from day one in training camp. LeBron is an incredible player, one of the best ever. I played with him years back in Cleveland and have followed his career,” Coach Karl explained. “He appreciates guys who play hard. We’ve seen that with guys like Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejão. They fit in well with him because he does all the special stuff and just needs guys to be consistent and compete.”
After averaging just 3.7 points for the Lakers in his rookie campaign, Caruso emerged to post numbers of 9.2 points and 3.1 assists through 25 games for the NBA club in 2018-19. Having success under the bright lights of Staples Center, playing alongside one of the best to ever do it…what more could a player want? More time.
His Two-Way contract meant Caruso’s days in the NBA were limited, regardless of how well he played. But that didn’t change the way he carried himself. He held his head high, serving as a leader for South Bay at the same time. Caruso averaged 14 points, 5.9 assists, and 2.2 steals for the minor league club. Despite only being 25 years old at the time, the guard had a wealth of knowledge and a lifetime of basketball memories that endeared him to teammates and made him a valuable commodity. There was much to learn, even from a player still trying to carve out his own path. At the same time, Caruso showed respect to others and was eager to learn from a veteran teammate like Andre Ingram. It didn’t matter that he could be called up to the NBA at a moment’s notice. Caruso was going to soak in all he could, wherever he was.
“He’s had to do it in a way that you can appreciate where he is today,” Coach Cyprien pointed out. “He wasn’t a draft pick. He didn’t come with a whole lot of fanfare. He had to go through the G League and he put up really good numbers. It really hasn’t surprised me what he’s done due to his tenacity, hard work, and coming from his background.”
Such hard work was rewarded last summer, in the form of a multi-year contract with the Lakers. Caruso is with the team on the full-time basis, but his numbers are down. He’s averaging 5.4 points, but alas, looks can be deceiving. More importantly, he appeared in 58 of 63 games for the Lakers before the season’s suspension.
It should come as no surprise that his impact has never been felt more. Such value is something Coach Cyprien found in the young gun way back when.
“Our passion for the game is why we hit it off. With a kid like Caruso, you knew what you were going to get every day. I think that’s what the Lakers appreciate about him. That’s what he and I appreciated about each other. He brings passion to practice every day, and that’s the kind of thing that has led to respect through the Lakers organization,” the coach said. “We’re similar, no one has given us anything. We’ve had to go the back door route. He’s basically knocked that door down. He’s a guy that I think is going to be around a long time because he does the intangibles and get his teammates involved. People love to play with him because he’s so unselfish. He dives on the floor. He takes charges. He makes the right plays. Now that he’s hitting shots, I think that’s gotten him over the hump.”
“He’s not leading the league in scoring. He’s not taking a ton of shots. He’s playing a specific role. That inspires everyone to say, ‘if he can do it, why can’t I?’ That can be misleading,” Coach Karl added, “because it under appreciates how athletic he is and the feel he has for the game.”
Perhaps more indicative of his prowess is the fact that Caruso is a key rotation piece for the league’s second-best team, the Western Conference leaders at the time of the suspension. The NBA G League is a proven path to the NBA, but the easiest road doesn’t come from scoring the most points or making the most headlines. Numbers aren’t important to Caruso and it was easy to see that, even based on what he did in the minor league. Basketball is a team game and the spitfire guard prides himself on the support he can provide. He can look for a teammate in transition, dive for a loose ball, run up and down the floor to pick up a tired teammate on defense, spark momentum with a slam dunk or simply wave a towel from the bench. All these little things add up, and Caruso is always there to turn up the jets.
“As an athlete, you have to compete. Alex is actually very special defensively, in terms of instincts. He has a feel for the game,” Coach Karl said. “If you’re able to compete at a high level, not back down from anyone, and always put forth that effort, I think you’re always going to earn the respect of your teammates. It shows that people want to play with him.”
“LeBron James and Anthony Davis really love to play with him,” Coach Cyprien said, further exclaiming his fellow coaching colleague’s point. “Alex is great from a synergy standpoint. He’s a winner and he’s always put in the work, from high school, in college, through the G League and now the NBA, he makes plays on both ends. He’s earned all the immediate success through passion, hard work, and ability to gel and be a great teammates with the stars on that team.”