Alex Caruso looks more like a used car salesman than an NBA baller. He’s paler than Toaster Strudel, with a pornstache, thinning hair and a total lack of ink. But here he is playing for the Los Angeles Lakers on a two-way contract—a new wrinkle in the marriage between NBA parent teams and the rebranded G League.
It’s a long way from College Station, Texas for a 23-year-old undrafted rookie guard.
The snapshot image brings to mind shades of Woody Harrelson in “White Men Can’t Jump.” But in Caruso you’ve got a dude with an infinitely more NBA-ready game—perhaps destined for quasi-legend status someday, one of those cats who comes out of nowhere to carve out a hoops career that forever inspires commentary about how he went unnoticed in the first place. Or, maybe he winds up chasing the Holy Grail with a succession of auditions and minor league gigs, waiver wire acquisitions and layovers from Mexico to Mongolia before cashing in his dwindling pile of chips for a steakhouse franchise somewhere in the American hinterlands. Nobody could possibly know, his full story hasn’t yet been written.
But for now he’s making the most of a pretty decent hand, playing a two-way game and inching his way up the ladder from obscurity to a spot in the rotation.
Considering the nascent stage of his career, the prospect from the Lone Star State seems to have a big picture grasp of what Lakers head coach Luke Walton wants.
“If you play with pace and swing it quick like that, it’s really easy,” Caruso explained, per Forum Blue and Gold’s Pete Zayas. “But it’s a lot of free-flowing and movement, and I think you can tell over the last couple preseason games, we’re getting better at it.”
The Association has a time-honored tradition of throwing fringe players against the wall to see if they’ll stick. It’s true of all positions but ball-handling guards make for especially fascinating test tube experiments. The Lakers have sampled their share over the years—Mike Penberthy, Darius Morris, Smush Parker, Marcello Huertas and Kendall Marshall just to name a few.
Don’t hate if your favorite Lakers flame-out wasn’t mentioned.
Caruso tied with Jordan Clarkson for the third-best plus/minus at +14 during the preseason. He subsequently leapfrogged over Tyler Ennis as Lonzo Ball’s primary backup for the Lakers’ first two regular season games, but was deactivated for the next two as Clarkson slid over from the shooting guard slot.
I reached out to FB&G’s Darius Sorriano to get an opinion of what Caruso could possibly bring to the team short term and perhaps even longer term.
“I think Caruso has the ability to develop into an ideal backup point guard for the style the Lakers want to play,” Soriano said. “While he’ll never fully replicate Lonzo, I think he has a similar approach to the game, with great feel as a passer, good size, and a knack for making the right play in front of him. I hope the Lakers can continue to develop him, both in the G League and with practice time with the main club.”
Caruso grew up in College Station, a small city in East-Central Texas. Winters are short and summers are oppressively hot and humid. Cue the sound of droning cicadas. But this is also home of Texas A&M as well as the local College Station High School. Caruso attended both, a big fish in the scrublands.
The 6’5” guard may have been a big deal in Brazos County but he wasn’t even on the bubble during the 2016 NBA Draft. Regardless, he was scouted as an above-average defender and set-up man, resulting in an invite from the Philadelphia 76ers to play on their Utah and Las Vegas Summer League squads. His dad—with 25 years as A&M’s associate athletics director of game operations under his belt—couldn’t have been happier.
“It’s been a dream of Alex’s since he was a little kid,” Mike Caruso said, per the school newspaper. “It’s something he has set as a goal and strived for and worked very hard at trying to obtain. He’s going to have an opportunity.”
Things didn’t pan out in Philly but the Aggies’ all-time assists and steals leader was picked up by the Oklahoma City Blue. Caruso started 46 out of 50 games, barnstorming the country and averaging 11.9 points, 5.2 assists and 3.9 boards, and converting 40 percent of his downtown bombs.
Meanwhile, L.A. went through a seismic front office shift that culminated in the hiring of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. Part of the subsequent restructuring process was an enhanced scouting operation with additional bodies focused solely on the minor league ranks (including the team’s own South Bay Lakers).
And so, a tall drink of water from the badlands found himself with another ticket to Las Vegas. And this time the cherries aligned—defense, poise and timely treys added up to the Lakers’ first two-way contract.
NBA teams are allowed two of these newfangled deals. Vander Blue—a perennial minor league scoring machine who once played for eight teams in four leagues on three continents in a single season—captured L.A.’s second two-way. The contracts allow teams to carry up to 17 players and for recipients to spend up to 45 days with their NBA team, with the remainder in the G League.
The heat eases imperceptibly in the Texas Triangle but seasons do change, just as sure as kids hang out at the Dairy Queen and oversized pickups rumble along a cracked two-lane highway. It’s a land of cul-de-sacs and limestone facades. A thin contrail arcs silently, high across the azure sky.
It’s much too soon to hazard a guess as to Caruso’s NBA future. But he’s somewhere on the map, living a dream and tossing the ball up ahead.