Alex Caruso: How He Got Here

Most basketball fans probably hadn’t heard of Alex Caruso until they saw him do this:

Or this:

Now, only LeBron James and Anthony Davis get a louder roar at STAPLES Center upon hearing their names called.

But how did Caruso get here? In an extended 1-on-1 chat, we asked him:

MT: Let’s go back to the beginning, and your exposure to basketball.
Caruso: My dad (Mike Caruso) grew up in Oakland (Calif.) and played high level basketball in high school, went 34-1 and won the California state championship. Played at Creighton University, coached a little bit and then decided to get out of coaching because he didn’t like recruiting. He was a big basketball presence as far as genetics; that was his favorite sport, it’s my favorite sport. I’m sure that’s where I get it from. But, just from a young age, my parents never forced me to do anything I didn’t want to sports wise. They weren’t the parents that made you try football, baseball and soccer. They just asked me and my sisters what we wanted to do. My mom told me this story before, that I didn’t ask to do much, but I wanted to play basketball. In first grade, I played in a league called Upwards Basketball in Bryan, Tex., and did that up until fifth or sixth grade. Then I played in the City League, where you pay $40 and randomly get thrown onto a team with other people from around the city, and that led into middle school and high school.

MT: So your dad moved to Texas out of Creighton?
Caruso: He met my mom when he was coaching at Creighton, and she was at University of Nebraska, Omaha, where Creighton is. They got married, and my dad took a job at Texas A&M as a gateway to something bigger, and fell in love with College Station and A&M and they’ve stayed for almost 30 years now. I’m not 100 percent sure on the original job, but I think it was with the football team in the marketing department. He worked his way up to Associate Athletic Director, where he’s been for 20-plus years.

MT: How tall is your dad?
Caruso: He’s 5’10’’ and one half. But my mom is 5’9’’.

MT: Ah, there you go.
Caruso: Yeah, my mom’s side is definitely where I get the height from, but I’m the tallest one by a couple of inches. I have a few uncles that are 6’1’’, 6’2’’, maybe some cousins that are up there, but I’m almost 6’5’’ barefoot, so I won the genetic lottery for that for sure.

MT: Your dad must be a pretty good athlete to play college hoops at 5’10’’, though…
Caruso: He was, but I talk to him about it too, because people ask me about the dunks and the highlights, where I get it from. I’m pretty sure it was my mom’s side. She ran track in high school and played other sports. My dad told me at his peak he was dunking a tennis ball, and was never an explosive athlete.

MT: So mostly basketball for you growing up?
Caruso: Yeah, I never played baseball. I never played soccer. I played flag football and organized football in school through my freshman year before I stopped.

MT: The way that you play and your persona – all the tenacity – has to just be how you were born? You don’t typically see that kind of stuff just show up later.
Caruso: Yeah, always. I’ve always been competitive. I don’t think I understood how competitive I was at a younger age. I just played really hard and wanted to win. In my mind, I just thought that was how you played basketball. You play to win. Growing up at the park, I’d try to find four guys to play 21, or 2-on-2, or 5-on-5 on a lucky day. There was a decent culture of basketball players within age range where it was fun to play, so I was doing that a lot. I’d be at the park until the sun went down, or out in the driveway. I was just always playing, even if it was 1-on-0 by myself.

MT: I’ve said this before for previous interviews, so bear with me, but I got hooked on Michael Jordan growing up in the 1980’s. But it was pretty obvious I couldn’t play like that. I was a point guard, and watched John Stockton, and thought, in my middle school ignorance, ‘Ah!’ That style of play seems possible! I’d later learn how incredible he was…
Caruso: That guy was nice, though…

MT: Of course, all time great, but you don’t realize that as much as a kid because he played a more simple, effective, screen/roll game.
Caruso: It was bland, but effective as heck.

MT: So here’s my question about the obvious difference between my dreams and those of most kids, and yours as a player: When did you start to realize that you might actually be able to do this?
Caruso: I don’t think I was mentally aware of how good I was or could be. I was typically one of the better players on the team, but I don’t know if I always gave myself credit. I’m not sure if it was how I was raised, or if I didn’t like ruffling people’s feathers. I was always humble with it. And I was also a late bloomer. I played varsity four years in high school, but I didn’t really play serious AAU until my last two years, and the last year was when I blew up. I played really well in the Vegas Classic, and the Double Pump tournament in Denver with really good players there, and got invited to a few camps, including the NBA Top 100 camp. It was the first exposure to guys I’d seen on (various) mix tapes, guys that were dunking that were clearly one and dones. My class was Shabazz Muhammad, Andre Drummond and Anthony Bennett. Guys whose names were known and who were being recruited by big programs. I ended up making the Top 25 game, and our team was winning games in the post.

The joke of those camps was that if you’re a post player, you don’t touch the ball. But I played with Cameron Ridley, who went to Texas and played against me in middle school, so we had a little bit of chemistry, and I was literally post feeding him on the block. Typically, if the guard brings it over midcourt, he’s going to shoot it. But that’s who I am as a player. I was trying to play the game the right way and trying to win the game when we’re at this showcase thing where it’s all about showing off how good you are as a player.

MT: But that’s the trick, doing the right things to win the game does show how good you are as a player. Alas. Let me fast forward for this question about where you are today, often flanking LeBron and AD, two of the best players in the NBA, where it’s your job to defend and do little things. I assume that the defense piece for you was always there as well, even in those showcase settings?
Caruso: Oh, yeah. For sure. It’s the same line where I told you, I was never fully socially aware of what kind of setting it was. I don’t know what I should be doing, so I’m just going to do what I know how to do. Play really hard. Make some shots. Have a couple dunks. Play good defense. The typical Alex Caruso game of current times.

MT: I’ve heard NBA players and coaches suggest that in AAU, there can be a certain ‘too cool’ element of ‘I don’t need to play defense too hard.’ It’s more about crossing somebody over. I’m sure there are tons of teams where that isn’t the case. Still, if so, were you a clash to that culture?
Caruso: A little bit, but at the same time, I feel like if you didn’t play, or you weren’t good enough to coast and be better than me, I forced you to play harder. I was the annoying one where I’m just playing my game and I don’t care what’s going on.

MT: You weren’t scared...
Caruso: Especially in high school, I’m sure it still goes on today, it’s like an ego thing. Every high school kid wants to know how many stars they can have, how many offers they can get. I’m sure it’s even worse with Instagram and the videos and clicks of plays and retweets and likes. It’s all just, you get told how good you are. ‘Man you’re gonna be this. You’re gonna be that.’ But eventually you have to prove it. And I think it’s a lot of reason why guys don’t stick around.

MT: Did A&M feel predestined for you?
Caruso: It was between there and University of Colorado. I tell people all the time that if I wasn’t from College Station, I’d have probably gone to Boulder.

MT: I know coaches love your style of play, but how realized was your game at age 18?.
Caruso: Yeah, practiced hard, did the right things. I got to A&M, and me and this other guy, J-Mychal Reese, were the two local kids. J-Mychal was Top 40 in the nation, No. 1 in 6th grade, the prize recruit, and I was the guy who was, ‘All right sweet, we got a kid to stay home and he’s actually pretty good.’ I wasn’t ready to play Division I basketball at the time, but we weren’t very good, and I got thrown into the fire. Honestly, it kinda just worked for me. I’ve always been someone that played better with better competition and learned by experience. From high school to college to the NBA, it all correlated. It took me (time at each level). From the G League to the two-way contracts, getting a taste, and now I’m reaping the benefits of those first few years of learning.

MT: And on this specific team, your role is pretty clearly defined.
Caruso: Going through the G League and talking to GM’s, asking them questions about what it takes to make an NBA roster, one of the consistent things was ‘Can you guard multiple positions,’ and ‘Can you exceed in your role,’ and I was like, ‘I can do that. I can find a role.’ I think the best part of my game is I can play multiple roles. I’m not being asked to be in 15-20 pick and rolls and distribute the ball. My role is to play really good defense, be efficient offensively and just bring that edge and that intensity. I’m not sure that’s my best role, but that’s my best role on this team. Like, at the end of the year last year, I was starting at point guard, and went a couple games where I had 9, 10, 11 assists and 12 to 18 points, and I think I’m capable of that night in and night out, but I think that’s a different role I can play, vs. what I can play right now on this team.

MT: That stretch you mentioned, went for the final six games last April, and you averaged 18.2 points (55 percent from 3), 8.0 assists and 1.8 steals. Obviously, that was excellent. But I struggled with analyzing it, because those games didn’t mean much with the team out of the playoffs. Not to take anything away from it…
Caruso: Yeah, there’s a psychological effect to playing. It’s how you see every team gearing up to play us right now, the No. 1 team in the NBA with LeBron and AD. But I just think it’s the confidence I have in myself, and being out there and playing. The more I’m playing the more confident I’m getting, the more belief I have. It goes back to how every level of basketball I’ve played at, I’ve grown into being comfortable and being one of the better players. Obviously I’m not going to stretch to say I’m going to be one of the better players in the league, that’s the LeBron’s and AD’s in a special category with god-given ability and some insane work ethic. But to be a legit NBA player, I think I can do that on a nightly basis.

MT: Well, the numbers certainly suggest that you already are, especially if you look at defensive rating. But sports is such a great metaphor for life, and for any job you’re in, you have to figure out the balance of how to be the best for you, and also for your employer, and you might have to hold back some of what you can do for the betterment of the group.
Caruso: What’s interesting about sports is that, it’s not like being a dentist or a lawyer, where no matter what, you have to be the best or else you don’t get paid or hired for service. In sports, you have roles, where you might not be the dentist, but the dentist needs good assistants. Or the lawyer needs a good understudy to do clerical work. There’s roles to be had in sports, where in other professions, you have to be the elite or else it doesn’t really matter.

MT: Here’s my counter: if you’re coming out of law school, maybe you go to work at a law firm where you’re not the guy – you’re not the partner – but you can help him or her. Then after a couple of years, you move up within the firm, or go to another firm. Or you gain an expertise in a specific area of the law. The metaphor can hold with sports, where you go to a veteran team as a young player and play a specific role, and then either expand that role in the future or become so good at it that you create career longevity in that role. Sports are just easier to analyze because everybody is watching…
Caruso: It’s instant media. You get it all in two hours, where the lawyer or the dentist, it might take a month to realize if they did a good job or not.

MT: And while you’re excelling in your role, you can also stay after practice and take more shots, or your handle, and develop that part of your game.
Caruso: I’ve had good conversations with South Bay Lakers head coach Coby Karl and some other people about the mental aspect of the game. It’s such a key ingredient to sports that people don’t understand. One of the biggest things I’ve come to realize is one of the most important attributes you can have as an athlete is self-awareness. Having self-awareness of, ‘OK, who am I? What am I good at? How does it translate to the team? How does it translate to the game? And what am I actually going to be able to contribute?’ This is why guys get stuck in the G League. If you average 25 points and three assists and two rebounds with average percentages … they’re paying guys $30 million to do that. They need guys to be in the roles we talked about, and a lot of times, people just don’t have the self-awareness or the ability to step outside of themselves and be objective and say, ‘What do I have to do to make it?’

MT: After going undrafted in 2016, you go to the Philly summer league squad, then to a year with the OKC Blue in the G League, and in 2017 to the Lakers summer-league-winning squad…
Caruso: I was talking to Kuz (Kyle Kuzma) about this. Our summer league team was ridiculously stacked. Our starters were Lonzo (Ball), (Josh) Hart, B.I. (Brandon Ingram), Kuz and (Ivica) Zubac, with me, (Nets guard) David Nwaba, (Raptors guard) Matt Thomas, (SBL forward) Travis Wear and (Wizards center) Thomas Bryant.

MT: Yup, there’s a reason you won! Moving back to you specifically … there was 2-man lineup data last year that I asked Frank Vogel about over the summer that revealed that you had a lot of success with LeBron. To me, there’s an obvious reason for that, with your ability on defense, and your ability to play on or off the ball on offense as it suited LeBron. You’d just do glue stuff for him. Set screens. Cut to the hoop. So you did what you said a moment ago. That’s a long preamble to this question: it must have also been hard for you moving up and down since you were having success when with the full squad?
Caruso: It’s natural human emotions. I got a taste of playing in the NBA, and competing against guys that were getting callups, and I’m still on the two-way. I feel like I’m contributing and I’m doing it and deserved to be (in the NBA), but at the end of the day I had to go back (to the G League). That was part of the reason I played kinda poorly at the beginning of the G League season last year. I went through another training camp, played well, played well in the preseason, and I just wanted to play in the NBA. I knew in order for me to get as good as I can get, I needed to play against that type of competition. I needed to get more access to that level of basketball … but I credit my South Bay teammates and coaches, because they helped me get back to doing what I do: playing really hard and enjoying the game.

MT: It’s also interesting because the South Bay Lakers are there to support the Los Angeles Lakers. Ultimately, you want to win as many games as possible in both cases, but if the big squad needs a two-way player for a month, it’s well worth the sacrifice to the G League record. I just wonder, then, how it is on players in terms of – even subconsciously – trying to have an equal amount of energy for both.
Caruso: It was, but at the end of the day, my habits are that I’m playing to win and playing hard when I’m on the court. But that’s part of the struggle of being a two-way player. There’s a mental aspect of going from a starter on 28 minutes and taking all the shots to being the 10th through 15th guy. It’s taxing.

MT: Fast forward to the present day, now. You’re leading the Lakers in individual defensive rating. How much of your defense is benefitting your teammates, and how much does having Dwight Howard or Anthony Davis anchoring your unit impact it …
Caruso: It’s a combo. I’ve always been a good defender, just because I have a want to stop the other person. I have a competitive edge in me where I get more mad when my guy scores than I do if I were to score 20. I find more joy out of frustrating the other team. I just want to win the game, and be the reason the other team is frustrated or can’t score. Whether that’s noticed or not, it doesn’t matter as long as I know I’m doing it and I’m having an impact. That’s what really counts. Then like you said, you have Dwight coming off the bench, former Defensive Player of the Year, it’s a deadly combo. Especially because me and him are in a majority of pick and rolls, I’m usually guarding the ballhandler or the better wing player, and he’s on the big setting the screens. I think that benefits our team. We also just have a good juice on the team of wanting to play defense. That’s hard to come by, partially because we know how good we can be and where we can be at the end of the year if we really care about it.

MT: I was thinking about the win at Phoenix and the work you did frustrating Devin Booker, who’s a terrific and versatile offensive player.
Caruso: Watching the film of that game, I was pretty locked in, thankfully, because if you’re not, he can go for 50, easily. I just tried to make it really tough for him. That’s my goal for everybody I play against that’s a good scorer like him. I knew where my help was, and it’s a lot easier to defend 1-on-1 when I know the structure of our defense and where guys are so I can funnel them into bodies.

MT: Can you detail that?
Caruso: There was only play where (Booker) was dribbling up the court, and he squared up, and I knew there was nobody to my left. I was above the break, and I knew AD and JaVale (McGee) were back, and I had two guys running back with me on the back side. My only goal was not to get beat baseline, and don’t just give him a direct drive to the middle. So he’s banging into me, banging into me, and now everybody likes to do the sweep through, so I’m trying to show my hands. I know he’s not going to get a layup, because we have length in there, and he’s not going to take an uncontested three, so he’s going to take the shot we want, a mid-range, contested two. I think the play ended up being, he got to within about 10 feet, and then AD got a hand on the ball because (Booker) was worried so much about trying to force me to his spot, that we ended up getting a steal. So just stuff like that.

MT: So … this is a good example of why younger players take some time to really learn how to make an impact defensively. It’s the mind more so than the body?
Caruso: Part of me being good on defense is that I’m a very good anticipator, and I’m very good mentally. I think the game out very well, and I can see stuff and recognize things that will help me have an advantage even when I don’t laterally or strength wise. I’m not like Avery (Bradley). Avery is an elite defender because he can just stay glued to you. He is laterally quick. He’s strong. He has good hands. As well as being smart, playing 10 years and knowing different coverages, different ways to guard people. But for me, it’s always been more about outthinking the other person. I haven’t always been faster, more athletic or stronger, and especially now, I’m not usually in the matchup. For me it’s about having good anticipation, knowing the player and what they like to do, and that comes with scouting and just seeing guys play, and then knowing where the help is.

MT: It’s always funny, or at least ironic, hearing an NBA player with a huge vertical and zero body fat talk about not being the best athlete…
Caruso: We’re already the top .1 percent, but this is like the .001 percent...

MT: OK, taking charges. You were 14th in the league last time I checked. How often does it hurt?
Caruso: Sometimes. After the Warriors game in preseason where I bruised my tailbone and had to leave the game, we ordered these super butt pads that I wear. It doesn’t hurt at all now. The only thing that hurts is when you hit the ground. It doesn’t hurt when a guy hits you.

MT: Even if it’s LeBron?
Caruso: I’ve taken some dumb charges in my day. In college, you remember Patrick Young from Florida? Big, swoll. Took a charge on him, and I was thinner than I am now. But, it’s not even something cognitive that I think about. I just naturally see it developing, know it’s about to happen and my body does it.

MT: Let’s talk shooting. I was talking to Troy Daniels about this the other day, because every time he misses a three, it feels heavy, as that’s his primary function. You’re clearly making an impact even when your shot isn’t falling, and you’re at 31 percent from three at the moment. How are you feeling about that?
Caruso: I haven’t started the year off shooting it great, which is a little frustrating, because I shot so many this summer and in the preseason. It’s not a lack of confidence thing. It’s not like I’m hoping or wishing they’ll go in. I’ve had a lot of back rim misses, some in-and-out misses. I shoot so many of them, they’re going to go in. It’s a law of averages. You’ve seen it as a team where we didn’t start well, but everybody is finding a flow now. A lot of the confidence I got is from the G League, just being the guy you go to when you need a shot or a bucket.

MT: How’s it been playing for Frank Vogel?
Caruso: Frank’s been a great leader for us in terms of mentality. As players, you go up and down with your focus some days just as far as traveling, the adrenaline of playing. But he’s always been a constant, reminding us of what we’re about, what we talked about as a team of where we want to be and how we have to get there. Something’s that impressive is how diligent his research is, his scouting (reports) are. Everything is very detailed. He’s emphasizing stuff that is usually happening in the game and it’s just really helpful. It’s been really good to see how he does it.

MT: All of the winning doesn’t hurt, but is the chemistry in the locker room as good as it would appear?
Caruso: That’s been one positive thing. All the guys are just such good guys. Everybody gets along. We genuinely enjoy hanging out with each other, so there’s no selfishness, there’s no alternative motives. Guys just want to win. They’re sacrificing, which is hard to do.

MT: Two more things. Have you gotten a chance to DJ yet? Music has become a bigger thing in in the locker room, especially postgame after wins.
Caruso: No, I don’t DJ. I just enjoy the tunes. It’s a good team camaraderie thing, though. Dwight’s been playing music the last couple games. But usually we play an artist of the city we’re in. In Memphis, it’s 36 Mafia … San Antonio was hard, so more just Texas music…

MT: Maybe pull in some Travis Scott out of Houston…
Caruso: Yeah, we pulled a little (of that) over.

MT: OK but if you did have the keys…
Caruso: If we were in Houston, I’d have some old school stuff. Some Slim Thug, some Z Ro.

MT: Finally, back to LeBron. Why do you think you’ve fit so well, so quickly, with an all-time great?
Caruso: I think he just appreciates the way I go about business. I play really hard. He knows that I’m a cerebral player, that I understand the game, I understand spacing and how to set screens to get guys open. A lot of that stuff is beneficial for him, because I’m usually the guy being guarded by the smallest player. So at the end of games, I’m (often) in the actions to get him open. But ultimately, I think he just appreciates the competitiveness; he wants to win, he’s a really, really competitive guy, and at the end of the day, that’s probably my best attribute. I play hard, and I compete, and that’s a reciprocated respect kind of thing.

MT: Sort of sums it all up. That’s probably why you are where you are. Thanks Alex.
Caruso: For sure.