Since leaving the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, Alex Caruso has helped lead the Chicago Bulls to one of the best records in the NBA.
Caruso, 27, has evolved from an undrafted player competing in the G League to an NBA champion who is now playing on a $30 million contract. As part of this evolution, advanced metrics and the “eye test” will both tell you that he has also become one of the most impactful defensive players in the league.
While recovering from a wrist injury, Caruso found some type to catch up with HoopsHype. He discussed leaving the Lakers, chemistry with Lonzo Ball, his early impressions of Los Angeles rookie Austin Reaves and plenty more.
How do you reflect on your journey from an undrafted player in the G League to an NBA champion on a $36 million contract?
Alex Caruso: Yeah, it’s been quite a journey. But it’s still just another chapter in the book. I still feel like I have a lot more time to spend in the league in my career. But I’m just taking every day, trying to be as present as possible. I was a two-way player in the G League, whether I was called up or I was down with the G League team, I was just trying to make the most of whatever opportunity I had at that given moment. That has really served me well throughout my career leading into this new opportunity, from winning the championship to getting a contract with the Bulls and playing heavy minutes that is surging in the Eastern Conference.
How much more confidence do you play with now that you have had these experiences?
Will Barton tried to take Alex Caruso.
That was not a good idea. pic.twitter.com/8cTjd19aMD
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) November 20, 2021
AC: For me, it’s always been about availability. Every time that I’ve played, I’ve gotten better and I feel like I’ve gotten more comfortable. I’m taking a lot of those experiences from the championship year in Los Angeles, where I learned from older players and esteemed coaches in a prestigious organization. They were just little things that I didn’t know that I know now. I can translate them into my game and push them on to other teammates. It’s really just helped me grow and be more comfortable out there on the floor.
Beyond the money, what was it about Chicago’s free agency pitch that resonated with you?
AC: They just described how I play basketball. They talked about me being an athletic, playmaking guard. [Coach] Billy Donovan talked to me about how he thought my passing ability has been a little bit underrated because I didn’t have the ball in my hands over the past couple of years when I was in Los Angeles. I thought that was true. That was something that I thought I could bring to the team in a positive way. We talked about being tough, having a little bit of grit, being a defensive-minded player, being somebody that plays for the team and plays for other guys and brings guys along. I thought they described it perfectly. I thought that was a situation where I could go in and be myself. I think that’s probably why I’m having so much success early with Chicago.
You’re one of the leaders in transition assists. What is about Chicago’s offense that allows for that in the open floor?
The Bulls are 3rd in the league in transition efficiency, and it's easy to see why. They have excellent outlet passing, athletes in front court and really make smart choices with their advantage chances. Guys like Caruso/Ball in particular are excellent in these situations.
— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) November 16, 2021
AC: Yeah, it’s a couple of things. I think we have a good flow within our offense. We don’t have anybody that’s selfish so the ball hops around, the ball is moving, the ball finds energy. When you do that, it’s easy to play together. The ball is finding the open guys. I think in transition, that is where I’m at my best as an offensive player because of my ability to read defenses. I can make the right reads and find open shots for guys. It’s a combination of those two things. I’m just continuing to try and push myself to see the floor and see the game. The more minutes I’ve played, the more the game slows down and the more situations I’ve seen before. That makes it a lot easier to read the game.
When you’re on the floor, second-chance efficiency and productivity go up. Why is that?
AC: I don’t know if I can put to any one thing but I know that I play with a high motor. That has become a skill nowadays in the game of basketball. That’s something that I bring every night. I know that even when I’m not feeling my best, like the other day against the Portland Trail Blazers, my wrist was banged up, but I just tried to make myself feel mentally present and play hard and let the game come to me. I was able to play one of my better games of the season and it really goes back to my intangibles. I’m a competitive player and I want to win every possession and every game and play hard.
What are some ways that you think you can improve to add even more value on offense?
AC: I think, percentage-wise, some of my shots aren’t falling. But I think that’s because of the early small sample size early in the season. I know I put a lot of work into my jumper last season. Every day, I’m just continuing to put in the work to be able to space the floor and so I can create my offense so if the ball comes to me on a late shot clock, I’m able to hit my shot. I can get a little more efficient but I’m confident in my shot and I’m not going to shy away from it because that comes with winning basketball. If you want to play in the playoffs and deep into the season, that’s what you’re going to have to do.
You lead the league in stealing bad passes. What are some of your strategies to read those lanes and force those looks?
AC: Instinctuallty, I’m able to read guys. I’ve been in the league for three or four years now. Well, I guess it depends if you count those two-way years as half years because I was up and down. But being able to see guys play a couple of times now, or some guys I’ve seen a dozen times, I’m getting a feel of how they play. I know how certain guards like to throw passes. I know the different things they’re looking for whether they’re driving left or right. I am just figuring out their tendencies. I compete during every play and try to win every moment. When I do those things, I tend to find success.
How is your chemistry with Lonzo Ball and how do you complement one another?
— The Ringer (@ringer) November 18, 2021
AC: He does a lot of the same stuff that I do on defense. He is a long, lengthy defender with great instincts. We can both rebound very well for a guard and we can push the break when in transition. We are both playmakers. We know where our guys are going to be and we know what the read is each time. We can help create offense for others. I think we have a lot of similar play style tendencies and it’s been really fun to play with him and build that relationship.
How much does it help to have offensive juggernauts like Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic?
AC: Those guys are elite scorers. They’re All-Stars for a reason. One thing that people haven’t realized is that LaVine and DeRozan are doing all this. But we don’t even have our third All-Star, Vooch, playing right now. We haven’t gotten anywhere near our full potential yet. The output that we have gotten from DeMar and Zach is just going to continue because we know how to gel as a team and we know our offense can continue to flow. It’s going to open up for more guys, too, and that’ll allow those guys to go out and do what they do – which is to score at elite levels.
What have you seen from Austin Reaves, another undrafted guy who has carved out a role with the Lakers?
Austin Reaves said he grew up a huge Kobe fan. He’s from a small town in Arkansas, where he said not many people get this kind of opportunity. He’s super excited to be with “the best organization in basketball,” and cited Alex Caruso’s path from the 2-way deal as a hopeful model.
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) August 4, 2021
AC: I’ve seen a little bit! It’s apparent now – I didn’t realize this when I was on the Lakers – but social media shows all of the Lakers highlights. [Laughs] I didn’t think that was true until I got another team. But he appears to be one of those good glue guys that winning teams need. I think he’s a lot farther along than I was during my first year in the league. I think we have the same mindset of getting better and working hard. Hopefully, he can stick around.
What has been the biggest adjustment from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Chicago Bulls?
AC: It’s probably the weather, man. [Laughs] It just gets you. I know it was 80 degrees when we played against the Los Angeles Lakers but it was snowing in Chicago. So it’s a little different atmosphere. I’m from Texas. I lived in Oklahoma City when I was playing in the G League my first year. That was nothing like Chicago. But it’s something I’ll embrace with open arms and I’m happy to do it because I’m going to be here for a while. I’ve got some jackets. I don’t do too much anyway. I’m not going to try to be a hero and walk through the snow.
On that note, what else do you do when you’re not playing basketball?
AC: I’m doing some giveaways in the community around Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m trying to grow that connection. I’ve also partnered with the brand TravisMathew. That’s really fun for me because I’ve been a fan of the brand for a long time, especially when I was in California for the past few years. They have an active collection, which is their version of workout gear. I know it’s really versatile. You can go from playing golf to working out to lounging at home with your dog and your friends. It’s really soft. It’s super lightweight and it’s comfortable and it has great functionality. I’ve done some photoshoots with them in Chicago. I want to do more of their golf stuff. That’s one of my favorite hobbies.
How do you rank yourself as a golfer compared to the other guys you’ve played in the league?
AC: I would say I’m above-average in the league if there were a handicap. I’m a mid to low 80s guy. When I was in the bubble, I played a lot with Kyle Kuzma and JR Smith. Now, JR is playing golf at North Carolina A&T. He’s really good at golf. He was like a +2.5 or +3.0 handicap then. I think he’s probably gotten better. I’ve played with some of my new teammates as well. I’ve played with Zach LaVine a few times. I’ve played with Matt Thomas. He is pretty good. We are about the same. He might be a little better than I am. It’s a lot of fun. Everyone in the NBA is at different levels for their golf game. But it’s so nice to be able to get out there and get away from the craziness of the season, especially with all the attention we get, and try to relax.