Alex Caruso has quickly become the most meme-able player in the NBA during the 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers season as a plethora of nicknames have taken hold.
The Bald Mamba. Big Balder Brand. Captain America. The Bald Eagle. Regardless of which one fans prefer, the bottom line is Caruso has received more attention than a player of his stature typically would. He averages 5.0 points in 20.2 minutes per game and just received his first full-time NBA contract.
As a result of all of the attention, an anti-Caruso backlash has begun festering among non-Lakers fans. Despite the fact the Caruso memes were all done with tongue planted firmly in cheek existing in the same realm as Chuck Norris jokes, sometimes a spotlight shining too bright on any one person leads to resentment.
However, regardless of where the attention originates from, he’s exactly the kind of player that fans should be shining a spotlight on.
For some role players, it’s easy to see exactly what makes them valuable. For example, JaVale McGee blocks shots and dunk all over people — two things that leap off the screen to even the casual observer.
Caruso’s brilliance is much more subtle and thus requires illumination.
In fact, a cursory glance at Caruso’s stat line on most nights would lead to the assumption that he’s not very good, putting up 5.0 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists while shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from the three-point line. He shot an unsustainable 48.0% from that distance in a small sample size of 25 games last season, which provided hope that he could provide some floor spacing this season. So far, it hasn’t happened.
So why then has LeBron James called Caruso a player who ‘gives us everything’ and head coach Frank Vogel said he’s ‘one of the more valuable two-way players’ on the team?
The answer is something that isn’t well-represented on a standard box score nor easy to detect with the untrained eye: defense.
During a game, eyes are naturally drawn to the basketball since that’s ultimately what matters. Does it go in the hoop or not?
When a team is playing defense, what stands out is a monstrous block, steal, or sometimes a particularly aggressive rebound. A player utilizing solid positional defense and making the right read on a rotation can be all but invisible while playing a crucial part in getting a win.
But these things matter and they have made Caruso a force for the Lakers. He currently ranks fourth in Defensive Rating among guards who average at least 15 minutes per game. For context, Patrick Beverley ranks 20th while Marcus Smart sits at 30th. Avery Bradley, who is currently out due to injury, ranks eighth.
As a tag-team, Caruso and Bradley gave the Lakers a fearsome defensive duo at the guard position that provided no let-up for opponents for all 48 minutes. Danny Green, who is no slouch himself, ranks 22nd among guards and provides even more solid perimeter defending for Los Angeles.
For the record, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope falls in the mid-40s, making it no surprise their defense has suffered from him taking Bradley’s spot in the starting lineup.
Still, despite what the advanced stats tell fans, it takes a keen eye to detect just what makes Caruso so effective. Each game, take a few Lakers defensive possessions, fight natural instincts, and forget about the basketball. Instead, watch Caruso. Most plays, one will see him, head on a swivel, constantly putting himself in the right place at the right time. He cuts off drives to the basket, can switch onto multiple players on a single possession, and perhaps most importantly, plays tough, physical defense without fouling.
For the season, Caruso is averaging a career-low 3.2 fouls per 100 possessions thanks to his improved willpower. Where he would have gambled for a steal in seasons past now Caruso focuses on putting himself in position to contest shots and contain drives, keeping his arm raised straight up and forcing his opponent to shoot over him. If they make a tough shot so be it, but Caruso isn’t rewarding players with easy points at the free-throw line anymore.
It’s also no surprise given how good his positional defending has been that Caruso currently leads the league in charges drawn for the guard position per 36 minutes.
Moreover, Caruso has long been known for his all-out hustle — a remnant of having to scrap and claw his way first into the G-League after going undrafted out of Texas A&M, then earning himself a two-way contract and finally, a fully guaranteed NBA deal. In a blowout win against the Wizards that was well past decided, Caruso was still hurling himself to the floor after a loose ball.
Offensively, while the three-point shooting has been a disappointment, Caruso is a smart and willing cutter who can make defenses pay for focusing their attention on James and/or Anthony Davis. He can be difficult to stop when attacking the basket where he finishes 78 percent of his shots.
And let’s not forget, Caruso can and will throw down violent dunks if given the opportunity, though all of this has paled in comparison to his defensive excellence.
What it all boils down to is that Caruso — despite the over-the-top memes and fanatical adoration from Lakers fans — is a good player. No, he isn’t the unstoppable force the Twittersphere makes him out to be, but if fans are going to shine a spotlight on a role player, Caruso is certainly deserving.
You just have to look hard to see why.