Alex Caruso’s NBA career began with a Summer League flyer from the 76ers after going undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2016. A brief stop with the Thunder followed; then, a 2-way contract with the Lakers that led to a two-year, $5.5 million contract, which expired this offseason.
So, speaking to reporters for the first time since inking a four-year, $37 million pact with the Chicago Bulls, came a time for the College Station native to reflect.
“There's guys that get a bunch of shots up. If I wanted to average double-figures, I could. I could take a handful of shots a game and percentages would probably drop a little, probably wouldn't win as many games. But for me it's always just been about winning,” he said.
“That's kind of just been my mentality, and it's always worked for me so I kind of just stuck with it. Pouring into other people and pouring into the team usually reaps rewards for the teams and yourself individually.”
For Caruso, those qualities seem to manifest most noticeably on the defensive end. He was an integral cog in the Lakers’ championship-winning defense in 2020 and comes to Chicago one of the preeminent guard defenders in the league.
With that comes the reputation of a tough, tenacious on-ball pest. Distinctions Caruso would no doubt embrace.
“Toughness to me I think is just doing the right thing every time,” Caruso said. “Just doing whatever your job is on each individual play, and a lot of times for me the last couple of years it’s been guarding really good players. And a lot of times you have to play physical, play a little dirty to try to slow guys down because this league is filled with killers, filled with guys that are really good offensive players.
“I think it’s (toughness) just a lot of resilience. I have a naive mindset where I always believe I am going to get the job done. That’s kind of carried me to, whether that is correct or not, I lose a lot of time. And failure is part of the process. But that mindset has helped me get to where I am today.”
The Bulls, who struggled mightily defending opposing ball-handlers last season, could use a dose of that mentality. In Caruso and Lonzo Ball, they added through free agency a good deal of size and athleticism to a refurbished backcourt rotation.
Caruso, specifically, ranks among the best in the NBA at defending at the point-of-attack (e.g. the point-of-the-screen in pick-and-roll coverage), an area head coach Billy Donovan often opined the Bulls’ guards struggling in 2020-21.
“I think care factor is a big part of it,” Caruso said of defending at the point-of-attack. “Caring every possession, having that mindset of wanting to get a stop, having a pride that you don't want your guy to score and you're trying to win games. That's kind of where it starts.
“That's something that I think I can provide day in, day out. Game-in, game-out. That's something you can control is your effort and your energy and playing defense, and for me, that's always been a catalyst for my game. Whether it's been getting a run-through steal and getting a dunk on the other end or taking a charge or getting a deflection. It provides energy to the team, provides energy for the game and usually is positive.”
Though Caruso’s agent knew the Bulls had interest, the 27-year-old guard thought the team’s sign-and-trade acquisition of Ball would take them out of the running. Eventually the stars aligned.
But even with Ball in tow, Caruso figures to play a prominent reserve role for a Bulls team hoping to make a jump. In addition to his defensive prowess, he connected on a career-best 40.1 percent of his 3-point tries last season, is a dynamic vertical athlete and a selfless passer, even saying at one point he hoped to grow similar alley-oop chemistry with Zach LaVine to what he once had with LeBron James.
The above qualities, combined with his 6-foot-4 frame, offer some flexibility for Donovan, whose affinity for three-guard lineups is well-documented.
“That's something that I think in this league you can't have enough of is guard talent,” Caruso noted.
Caruso also brings deep postseason experience, and according to Ball, who briefly shared Lakers threads with him in 2017-18, a consummate team-first mentality.
“He brings a winning mentality to the team first and foremost as a champion, and he also brings that toughness, that grit, and he’s going to do all the little things,” Ball said. “AC is the perfect teammate. Anybody would love to play with him. He’s going to put the team first and I know he’s definitely going to be appreciated in Chicago.’’
Caruso certainly was in Los Angeles, where many fans opined the Lakers not making enough of a concerted effort to retain him.
“It’s the business of basketball,” he said. “You can’t always keep everybody you want or else there’d be a bunch of good teams with a whole bunch of good players and nobody else would win. That just kind of is part of the business of it. I’m happy that I fell to Chicago, that the chips fell where they did. I’m excited for the team that we have and the future that this team has.”
Whatever comes of Caruso’s Bulls tenure, bet his effort will never lack.
“I had pride before I signed a multi-year deal for a bunch of millions of dollars. I had pride every time I step on the court, whether I'm playing pickup or I'm in one-on-one drills in training camp. That's just who I am,” he said. “I compete. I love to compete. It just makes the game more fun when you win.”