As March Madness sweeps the nation it’s only natural that NBA fans gravitate towards the college players that will be the cream of the crop in this year’s Draft. Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett, and a few others will hear their names called early on draft night, after which they will enjoy the spotlight that comes with being a highly-touted prospect.
Most, however, won’t be so fortunate. Those who don’t hear their name called on Draft Night will have to forge a different path into the NBA, one which often means heading to the NBA’s developmental league, the G League.
Perform well there, and they just may find their way onto an NBA roster despite going undrafted, which is a testament to the growth of the G League as a viable pathway to the big show. For the Los Angeles Lakers, both Alex Caruso and Johnathan Williams are hoping to do just that.
With the team out of the playoffs, head coach Luke Walton has turned to Caruso and Williams, both on two-way contracts which allow them to float between the Lakers and their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime and one that neither will let pass them by.
Caruso has the advantage of having already played with the team last season, during which he carved out a spot in the hearts of die-hard Lakers fans.
After spending his college days at Texas A&M, in 2016 he landed with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. In the summer of 2017, Caruso found his way to the Lakers’ Summer League team.
He made a lasting impression when he stepped in at point guard for an injured Lonzo Ball and guided the team to a memorable win over De’Aaron Fox and the Sacramento Kings, after which the Lakers gave him their first-ever two-way contract. Caruso wound up playing a major role for that team, which would go on to be crowned Summer League champions.
One year later, Williams also used Summer League in Las Vegas as his proving ground. Going undrafted out of Gonzaga in 2018, he caught the attention of the Lakers by doing the little things and playing hard-nosed defense. After a successful summer and preseason, the Lakers eventually gave Williams a shot as JaVale McGee’s backup in October, but then put him on a two-way contract and sent him to the South Bay Lakers after veteran big man Tyson Chandler was brought in.
Now, with injuries forcing so many Lakers out of action in another lost season, it’s Caruso and Williams who are providing the incentive for a frustrated fan base to keep tuning in. They approach each possession with a certain hunger, eager to show that they have what it takes to stick in the NBA.
As Williams told LakersNation.com back in October, “I just want to keep proving myself right and prove other people wrong. That’s my whole mindset. I’m going to keep proving myself right and the people who believe in me right.”
Williams’ offensive game is rather limited, with a sweeping left-handed hook shot as his only go-to weapon, but he’s made up for that with defensive versatility and a willingness to battle on the boards.
He currently has the highest offensive rebounding percentage on the team, which is a testament to the non-stop effort he gives in pursuing the basketball. Williams is 6’9″ but weighs just 228 pounds and isn’t likely to show up on many scouting reports, but he makes teams who take him lightly pay when they turn their attention elsewhere.
He’s just mobile enough to play in a switch-everything defense, which the Lakers have turned to whenever possible. Williams may give up size and strength when he lines up at center, but Williams is intriguing, in some ways reminding of Larry Nance Jr. with his ability to be a jack-of-all-trades on the defensive end.
“I’m a quiet guy but I know to make an impact with this team I have to bring some type of energy”, Williams said. I need to bring vocal leadership, just calling out screens, calling out coverages.”
Caruso, meanwhile, acts like a human pinball on the court, bouncing off larger players and hurling himself to the floor after loose balls. He gets roughed up a bit, but there is a Steve Rogers-like quality to him that makes you believe he can do it all day and keep coming back.
Caruso makes smart cuts to the basket by taking advantage of defenders foolish enough to forget about him, which LeBron James has taken advantage of.
Caruso is even hitting his threes this season, which had been a problem area, at a 53 percent clip. It’s a tiny sample size because he only attempts 1.1 per game, but his improvement there is still noteworthy and certainly critical to his chances of landing a permanent spot on the roster.
On the defensive end, he combines consistent effort with a knack for anticipating where the ball will go, which allows him to rack up steals, including five against the Knicks last week. With Ball ailing, Caruso is proving himself to perhaps be more impactful than starting point guard Rajon Rondo, besting the veteran with a 3.9 net rating compared to a -7.9 from Rondo.
Players like Caruso and Williams weren’t blue-chip prospects coming out of college but every team needs players who know what it’s like to scratch and claw their way into the league. As much as basketball is a game of skill, sometimes what really matters is who wants it most.
Most probably wouldn’t recognize Caruso and Williams if they walked past them on the street, but on the court, they are easy to find. They are the ones still scrapping over every possession because, as undrafted players, there simply isn’t any other option but to give it all every time they step on the floor.