The whole “NBA champion Alex Caruso” thing hasn’t gotten old for the Los Angeles Lakers’ 26-year-old backup guard. Caruso, who has turned into something of a cult hero for fans of the purple and gold, is a story of hard work and determination paying off in the form of immortality, as the once-undrafted free agent went through a pair of G League systems — first Oklahoma City, then Los Angeles — before getting the call to join the Lakers.
Since first getting the opportunity to join L.A.’s senior side during the 2017-18 campaign, the final one before LeBron James moved from the shores of Lake Erie to the Pacific coast, Caruso has been something of a stalwart. No, he has not played 82 games a year or anything, but he’s grown increasingly reliable for whomever has coached the team during his tenure as a backup guard who can keep the offense moving, hit some shots, and compete.
This paid off last year when Caruso appeared in all 21 games the Lakers played during their run to a championship, granting him one form of basketball immortality. And when it came time for the offseason, he was determined to put the work in to make sure the team could make it back to the mountaintop. Well, eventually.
Caruso took three weeks off from basketball following his return from the NBA’s Orlando Bubble, instead opting to find other ways to train as he decompressed back home on the heels of the longest season of his life.
“It was great,” Caruso told Dime prior to the start of the season. “When I told you I took three weeks off, I took three weeks off of playing basketball, so I didn’t touch a ball. I was still getting lifts in using my Tonal, using some other guys that are around the L.A. area. The Tonal’s been great for me, because when I need to get some extra work in either on a day where I feel like I didn’t get enough in when I was at the gym, or I just wanna get some extra work in at night because I’ve got the itch to get into the workout routine again, like I said, I just pop in some music, press play, and get after it, 30-40 minute workout. Even a 15-20 minute yoga session or stretch session just to kinda get the body more fluid and better chance for recovery. That’s kinda what I did for three weeks, then through that three weeks, it kinda carried me back to where I needed to be.”
Using something like Tonal has been part of Caruso’s general maturation process off the floor. As he’s become more and more tenured in the league, Caruso has come across a number of people — whether they be folks with the teams for which he’s played or otherwise — who have helped shape what he does to make sure his body is in top physical condition before, during, and after the season. All of this has been incorporated into how he exercises.
“I’ve used a lot of those experiences to kinda grow my workout routine, I have different teammates that I’ve asked about how they do their offseasons and what they’re focused on,” Caruso says. “A lot like my game, my offseason programs are growing and becoming more fine-tuned the more time I have to put into them and the more opportunities I have to see different workouts, see different stuff that works best for me. It’s been great to be able to grow that and become more knowledgeable about what I need.”
All of that has taken on extra importance this year, as Caruso and the Lakers know a bullseye exists on their backs due to their championship. Caruso explains the whole thing as a “second bullseye,” as he believes one will inherently always exist due to the fact that the team is tied for the most championships in NBA history.
He does credit the team’s leadership, whether it be someone like LeBron James or non-players like head coach Frank Vogel and general manager Rob Pelinka, for creating an environment where “it’s easy to fall in line and make sure that we’re constantly getting better and focusing on stuff that we need to improve on.” And this year, that environment has led to them having an early 3-2 record amid this slog of a season — Caruso has appeared in three games, all off the bench, and is averaging 5.3 points, 1.7 rebounds, one assist, and 0.7 steals in 13.7 minutes a night.
Caruso also has some unique insight into one of L.A.’s most intriguing young players, second-year guard Talen Horton-Tucker. A revelation for the team during the preseason, Horton-Tucker followed a similar path to Caruso, using the G League as a way to improve his game last year as he bided his time and waited for a spot to open up on the main roster.
Perhaps it is because he is a beneficiary of this system, but Caruso believes the single most important thing for a person to develop is to play competitive basketball. It prevents a talent like Horton-Tucker from getting the necessary reps at the NBA level, but the G League gives him exactly what he needed to become a better player.
“We had such great depth last year that there were no minutes to throw Talen out there and give him 15 minutes some nights, or throw him out an 8-minute stretch and see how he does,” Caruso says. “We had such a good team that there wasn’t enough minutes to go around, so being able to get him with South Bay, where I had a lot of success in growing my game and growing my confidence, I think he did the same thing. They’ve got a great coaching staff, a great front office in South Bay. Talen, testament to him as well, just continuing to work, continuing to want to get better makes it a lot easier for you when you’ve got great help.”