It's late January and, in the sixth game of a seven-game road trip, the Lakers are simultaneously trying to avenge a blowout loss to the Celtics from last season and avoid their third straight defeat. Clinging to a 96–95 lead, Los Angeles coach Frank Vogel calls a set to get Anthony Davis—who has been feasting on Boston’s vertically challenged frontcourt—a one-on-one opportunity in the post. The Lakers clear out one side of the floor, LeBron James tosses the ball into the left block and Davis coils for a turnaround jumper with 12 seconds left. Lurking in the opposite corner while all this is happening is Alex Caruso.
The moment Davis rises, Boston guard Kemba Walker rushes over and strips the ball. As Walker moves to corral it, Caruso sees Celtics forward Jaylen Brown sprinting the other way. He darts out of the shadow of his own basket, overtaking Brown and knocking away Walker’s pass to prevent a game-winning dunk. Brown recovers the ball but the Celtics can’t get a clean look and settle for a contested 13-footer from Walker, which clanks off the rim. A tip at the buzzer doesn’t fall. On a night the Lakers were desperate for a win, Caruso—not Davis and his 27 points, not James—is the hero.
“Some games, he plays three minutes in the first half and then the entire fourth quarter,” Vogel says. (In Boston, Caruso logged seven minutes in the first half and all 12 in the fourth.) “My nickname for him is Mariano Rivera, knowing he’s someone I can trust that is going to deliver for us.”
Alex Caruso is not the person you would expect to be making game-changing plays in the final seconds for the defending NBA champions. His comically large headband, retreating hairline and 2% milk complexion make the 6' 4", 186-pound point guard look more like a role player at LA Fitness than an L.A. Laker. He played four years at Texas A&M, in his hometown of College Station, where he averaged 8.0 points and 4.7 assists. Undrafted in 2016, he ended up in what was then called the D-League (now the G League). And yet an L.A. team stocked with veterans for a repeat-or-bust campaign, in the tensest moments, counts on Caruso to be a closer.
That is largely the product of Caruso’s tenacity and versatility. Because of his quickness, communication skills and anticipation, he often guards the opponent’s most potent perimeter threat down the stretch. Against the Celtics, that meant 6-foot Kemba Walker some times, and 6' 8" Jayson Tatum others. (Per NBA.com, Caruso has the best defensive rating of any Lakers rotation player.) And while Caruso has never been a consistent shooter—though he was hitting 50.0% of his threes through L.A.’s first 22 games, above his career mark of 38.2%—he finds ways to fit in, whether that’s spacing the floor, crashing the offensive glass or hurling himself at loose balls. Whatever Caruso is doing, it works: The Lakers are 17.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off it, and, for the second straight season, the LeBron-Caruso pairing has a better net rating than the LeBron-AD one.
“I’m living the dream,” says the 26-year-old Caruso, who signed a two-year, $5.5 million deal before last season. “What else do I need? I make a lot of money, I have good friends and family, I win basketball games and I get to travel around the world. This is pretty sweet.”
Caruso’s road to the sweet life was a winding one. He spent a year in the minors with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s affiliate, who would rarely advertise their games so as not compete with the big club. His parents, Mike and Jackie, would drive six hours to watch him play in a gym that had bounce houses to entertain kids. One of his road games took place at the same facility where his agent, Greg Lawrence, was playing in a beer hockey league. (Caruso stuck around for the hockey; he remembers both of their teams won.)
Then in 2017, Nick Mazzella, the general manager of the South Bay Lakers, was at the league’s Elite Mini Camp in Chicago with South Bay president Joey Buss when Caruso caught their eye. “I know if you see Alex on the street you’re not like, This guy must play basketball,” says Mazzella. “But he was just bodying up everybody, defending really well. He had some phenomenal finishes at the rim and then a chase-down block. He really stood out.”
After the Chicago camp Mazzella persuaded Lawrence to have his client join the Lakers’ 2017 Summer League team in Las Vegas. When Caruso first met the Lakers’ coaching staff, they largely had the same reaction as most everyone else. “At the Summer League first practice, one of the coaches called me over and said, ‘Who gave the UPS guy a jersey?’ ” says Mazzella.
It didn’t take long for Caruso to show what he could do for L.A. by helping lead the team to a Summer League championship. That earned him not only the attention of fans starved for signs of a renaissance, but also the first two-way contract in NBA history, which allowed the Lakers to move him back and forth from the G League. The hope, Mazzella admits now, was that Caruso would run L.A.’s offense competently enough in South Bay that he could help other minor leaguers in their transition to the NBA club.
Due in part to injuries in L.A., Caruso played 37 NBA games in 2017–18, the first year of his two-way deal, and started flashing some of his athleticism—such as his one-handed dunk at the expense of Rockets bruiser P.J. Tucker—that first turned heads in Chicago. But Caruso was often caught between two worlds, preparing for a G League game one minute, only to have to scramble to the one-gate airport in Prescott Valley, Ariz., for a last-minute call-up the next. One night he could be in Des Moines, the next he could be in Los Angeles playing in front of Rihanna and Jack Nicholson.
Even with all the back and forth, Caruso’s commitment to his South Bay teammates never wavered. “He took on a leadership role that most two-way guys don’t normally do,” says guard Andre Ingram, a G Leaguer since 2007. “I’ve played with players on a call-down who were like, Why am I here? AC was never like that.”
“He never showed any interest in only being a [Los Angeles] Laker,” says South Bay coach Coby Karl. “He was fully committed to the whole process. His leadership and willingness to be a part of the team were very evident.”
Caruso’s profile began to grow in his second season, after James signed with the Lakers and quickly began appreciating Caruso’s smarts. In April ’19, Caruso captured national attention when he threw down a vicious putback over the outstretched arms of Kevin Durant, drawing a shocked James out of his seat on the bench—and instantly turning him into a meme. That summer, the Lakers acquired Davis from New Orleans, hired Vogel and made it very clear the goal was to win a championship. While younger guards such as Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart were shipped out, Finals-tested veterans like Rajon Rondo and Danny Green arrived, forcing Caruso to again stand out to earn his minutes.
“When I was watching our pickup games from last season as we built up to training camp, he was just all over the place with his defensive ability,” Vogel recalls. “His defensive instincts and athleticism really reminded me of when I used to coach Paul George. I started talking to my coaching staff like, Am I crazy with what I’m seeing here?”
Caruso left camp as the team’s third point guard, but he made it increasingly hard for Vogel to keep him off the floor. His hustle plays provided energy. His predisposition for tough defense fit the new identity of the team. And he overcame inconsistent shooting by being in the right place at the right time, further earning LeBron’s trust. Vogel would often turn to Caruso when he felt the team needed a spark, and he realized the young guard had a knack for swinging games. James and Davis wanted him on the floor, not only for his willingness to do the dirty work, but also because of his intelligence. “I’ve always been a cerebral player,” Caruso says. “I’ve always been able to see stuff and anticipate things happening. [My teammates] know I’m going to be in the right spot, I’m going to make the right play and I’m going to play winning basketball.”
Caruso went from outside the rotation to a starter in Game 6 of the Finals, when the Lakers clinched their 17th championship. By that point Caruso was so focused on the task at hand he was barely communicating with Mike and Jackie, who had come to the Orlando bubble for the playoffs. When his mom found out on the internet that Alex would be starting Game 6, his first start in the postseason, she says she couldn’t help but be a little nervous.
“I was not,” Vogel says. “I knew we were going to win with that move. I really had elite confidence in that decision.” In a 106–93 victory over the Heat, Caruso played 33 minutes and had four points, five assists, three rebounds and one steal. He was also +20, the highest rating on either team.
During his climb from G Leaguer to NBA champion, Caruso has stayed easygoing. When he’s not working on his game, he can be found at the beach throwing around a football with his college buddies. While some Lakers eat at Nobu Malibu, the high-end sushi spot with made-for-Instagram sunset views, Caruso is more likely to be spotted at Ruby’s Diner, an old-school restaurant where the only other basketball players are middle-schoolers coming from a rec league game. Travis Wear, another former G League teammate of Caruso’s, says when the two hang out in the offseason and Caruso is recognized—a more and more frequent occurrence—he always offers a friendly hello.
That affability is not surprising to anyone who has spent time with his Caruso or his parents. In any scouting report on them, “probably give great hugs” would be the first line, and, when they are in town, Lawrence’s kids look forward to play dates with them.
“[Alex] has a full appreciation for where he’s at,” Lawrence says. “The joy of being around him is he has the perfect mix of appreciation, pit-bull work ethic and fun.”
“I understand how hard some people have to work to just survive and live their lives,” Caruso says. “I’m calling you from the Ritz-Carlton, we’re talking about basketball and playing with LeBron James and the Lakers. It seems very simple to me to be appreciative of what you have. I don’t take anything for granted.”
It’s no secret that Caruso’s looks initially drew attention from the L.A. faithful, who gave him nicknames such as Bald Eagle, the White Mamba and the Accountant, then chanted “MVP” when he was at the free throw line after a spirited sequence. But while outsiders may perceive the cheers as patronizing, they clearly come from a knowing—and appreciative—place. In the pre-COVID-19 days of crowds, fans would roar when Caruso checked into games, cranking the volume even higher after one of his hustle plays. Near the corner of Melrose and Fairfax, a shoe store commissioned a mural in which Caruso is dunking over a group of Western Conference foes. And despite being in the midst of a season when he averaged 5.5 points per game, he finished fourth among guards in the fan voting for last year’s West All-Star team.
And then there are the memes, so many that Caruso once referred to himself as “the token meme guy.” After the Lakers posted a picture of him working out shirtless in the summer of 2019, a tidal wave of Photoshopped pictures of an even more beefed-up Caruso hit the internet. He took them in stride, pointing out on his Instagram that after the photo went viral, the NBA (coincidentally) notified him he was going to be drug tested.
“He’s just so approachable,” Mazzella says. “There would be some guys who would be sick of a bald eagle meme. And he just embraces it. I don’t see a difference in now from the first day I met him.”
So, no, Caruso isn’t yet chopping it up with the courtside VIPs at Staples Center. “No, no, no,” he says. “Trust me, I’m still not an A-list celebrity. I’m not dapping up Floyd Mayweather or Will Ferrell when they come to a game. None of those people are friends.”
Maybe he’ll get there one day. Even when he was at a G League outpost, competing with inflatables for attention, Caruso never had a backup plan. He intends to play for at least another decade. “After we won the championship, I was in a space where I felt a little bit fulfilled,” Caruso says. “But it’s part of my nature now. I’m a rent-is-due-everyday kind of guy. Nothing is guaranteed. At any given time teams can be uninterested again. I don’t want that to come for a while.”
The first time Mazzella met Caruso was before the start of the 2017 Summer League, outside of the Lakers’ old practice facility in Inglewood, which the team used to share with the NHL’s Kings. It was the same building where he had bumped into his agent, who was drinking beer from a keg and playing hockey. The GM introduced himself and told Caruso this would actually be his last time at this building, because the Lakers were moving to a new one a couple of blocks away by the end of the summer. To this day Mazzella remembers Caruso’s reply:
“As long as there’s two goals, that’s all I need.”