Caruso's Uncommon Path to the NBA
The Lakers Use of Their G League Affiliate Provides a Model
The following is definitely not a traditional path for an NBA rotation player:
Undrafted out of college ➡️ one full season in the G League ➡️ two seasons on an NBA/G League 2-way contract ➡️ NBA rotation player.
But that's Alex Caruso’s journey since he graduated from Texas A&M in 2016.
After not being selected in the 2016 NBA Draft, the 6’5’’ point guard spent 2016-17 with OKC’s G League squad. The Lakers' G League squad, the South Bay Lakers, had been scouting Caruso. After the season, SBL offered a 2-way contract that carried him through the next two seasons. Now, he's on the full NBA roster.
“The vision with the G League is to always find upward mobility to the NBA,” said Lakers Vice President, Research and Development and South Bay Lakers President Joey Buss. “One of the focal points for our 2-ways was to get an up-and-coming point guard who can run the same system as the Lakers so that all the players would benefit. What we didn’t expect was that he would impress so early on in the process.”
There are a ton of exceptions, but most regular NBA rotation players are drafted in the first round. More often than not, the higher the draft pick, the longer a player lasts in the NBA.
L.A.’s current roster tells that tale, with a clear majority of first round picks: LeBron James; Anthony Davis; Kyle Kuzma; JaVale McGee; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; Avery Bradley; Jared Dudley; Rajon Rondo; and Dwight Howard. Meanwhile, Danny Green and rookie Talen Horton-Tucker were second rounders, and Quinn Cook and Troy Daniels, like Caruso, went undrafted*.
*Notable undrafted NBA players include Wesley Matthews, J.J. Barea and Udonis Haslem; that number could increase as more teams develop their G League franchises.
Caruso proved his worth by playing very well at the Las Vegas Summer League in 2017, and then playing in 25 games for the Lakers in 2017-18. That went up to 37 in 2018-19, as he often flew commercial to join the squad after playing for SBL the day before. He shined in the final six games last season, averaging 18.2 points (55 percent from 3), 8.0 assists and 1.8 steals. The only disclaimer: the Lakers were out of the playoff race, important to note when evaluating certain NBA games and players in March and April.
Nonetheless, Caruso impressed on both ends of the court, as well as with his dedication off the court. And while he has competition from Bradley, Rondo and Cook for minutes under new head coach Frank Vogel, it’s not out of the question that Caruso could earn his way into the starting lineup.
Caruso is a good and disruptive enough defensive player, and heady enough offensive player, that he’s going to earn himself minutes whether he starts or not ... especially if he’s able to continue to hit the 3-pointer (30.2 percent on 43 attempts as a rookie; 48.0 percent on 50 attempts as a sophomore). If the deep ball is falling, Caruso may be L.A.'s most complete option at the 1.
How he continues to develop makes for a sliding scale, but so far, he’s a perfect model for what the Lakers have been trying to build with their G League program.
What happens more typically: a player goes undrafted, and bounces around in the G League, or internationally, or in various other domestic leagues. It can be hard to get back on an NBA radar with many front offices often more focused on collegiate players who are on national TV all the time playing in big preseason tournaments or, eventually, the NCAA Tournament. G League players can slip through the cracks. But not in L.A., if Buss can help it.
“When the time of year comes by, a 2-, 3-, 4-year player who’s been out of the NBA for that amount of time won’t look as appealing as an incoming draft prospect,” he explained. “So what we’ve tried to do here is have a balance of not forgetting about anybody. Bringing guys back of part of our continuity to grow, because it’s silly to think that these guys will reach their maximum potential in one year or two years. We just want to be able to foster growth for all these types of players including the new draft prospects, or undrafted prospects.”
Of course, that doesn't make it easy.
Buss and his GM, Nick Mazzella – who was also recently promoted as the senior director of pro personnel for the Lakers – try to find players who are open to the idea of being developed.
“Life on a two-way contract can be very difficult on a player,” said Mazzella. “While the opportunity is great, it’s a mental challenge having two separate families and contrasting roles with each. And to Alex’s credit, he handled it as well as you could and worked his tail off. It didn’t matter to him which team he was with, he used each day as an opportunity to perform and get better, and that mindset has helped him get to where he is today.”
SBL is an easier sell in part because of recent precedent of players getting called up: Johnathan Williams, Jemerrio Jones, Andre Ingram, Travis Wear and current Brooklyn Net David Nwaba are among 24 all-time SBL NBA Call Ups. Maybe more importantly, the South Bay Lakers have the best facilities in the G League, and they happen to rest within the UCLA Health Training Center, right next to the L.A. Lakers.
Meanwhile, many G League squads are in cities hours away from their parent club – some even rest in different states – SBL truly feels like a part of the NBA franchise.
“I think we have the biggest advantage as an NBA team because our G League team is in the same building as us,” said Buss. “Those margins are usually hard to quantify, but Caruso gives a perfect example of what we’re trying to do. We shouldn’t be looking at the NBA product as just trying to get all of the big names and the big talent and just focus on the top of the roster. Every roster spot is important, and I’d argue that the NBA is going to start heading into this era of the bottom of the roster getting better and better due to more effort and analysis being put in by NBA teams.”
It has certainly worked out well thus far for Caruso.
“When we first signed Alex, we knew he had some nice qualities in a player - good size for a guard, athletic, an elite understanding of the game and a plus defender,” said Mazzella. “We identified a few things he could work on to take his game to the next level, giving him the opportunity to be a primary scorer with South Bay, while spending countless hours on shooting and working to limit his turnovers. He was able to work on these things with South Bay, while also being a vocal leader of the team. But each time he was needed with LAL, he answered the call and did whatever was asked of him. And it didn’t surprise us to see him perform so well.”
There are always movements within the NBA community with teams looking for an edge, most recently with analytics, and the prominence of 3-point shooting, the limiting of mid-range attempts and increased pace. Meanwhile, the Lakers have been among the top teams at creating synchronization with their G League team, and that’s helped them towards at least a handful of NBA wins in the past few seasons.
“It’s almost like an era of money ball at the bottom of the roster that I think is going to end up making every win count that much more,” Buss continued. “So if we can get one win, two wins, three wins and be the difference between the first seed and the fourth seed, or the second seed and the eighth seed, that’s what we strive for. I think that’s very exciting for our fans to look for and be engaged in, because every win matters.”
The NBA has become so competitive, especially in the Western Conference, that one or two wins really can make a difference in the standings. And if a team suffers a series of injuries, but can call up an NBA-caliber player from their G League squad that’s able to fit right into the rotation the next day, that could be the difference between a win and a loss on a given night.
Now, a player out of L.A.'s G League system has a chance to contribute even more.
“The better the talent around Alex, the more valuable he becomes,” concluded Mazzella. “He can create offense with the ball in his hands, and he can be effective off ball with cuts and screens. And his spot up game has improved tremendously. We got to see glimpses of his NBA impact over the past two years and I’m excited we’ll get to see it now on a more consistent basis.”
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