Playing with LeBron James can be big for a lesser known pro’s notoriety. Just ask Matthew Dellavedova and his nearly $40-million contract. Lakers guard Alex Caruso might be the next big beneficiary of being within James’ orbit.
Caruso will come off the Los Angeles Lakers bench when the NBA Finals begin Wednesday against the Miami Heat. And while he might not fill up the box score, Caruso could be the key to LeBron and the Lakers bringing home the title and avoiding an upset. Not bad for an undrafted guard who’d spent more time before this season in the G League than in the NBA.
Here are five things you need to know about the Lakers’ fan favorite.
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1. He’s the greatest point guard in Texas A&M history
Caruso finished out his career at Texas A&M by making it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. In the process, he led the SEC in steals for a third consecutive year. Caruso scored his season-high 25 points in the Aggies’ second-round win over Northern Iowa, showing off his clutch gene. And his senior season was enough to earn SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors from CBS Sports.
A kid from College Station, Texas, Caruso filled up his hometown school’s record books. That includes setting the Aggies’ all-time assists record with 649 and the all-time steals record with 276. He broke the 1,000-point mark his senior year to finish as the 28th-leading scorer in program history, as well.
2. Alex Caruso can dunk
One of The Athletic’s NBA reporters, Fred Katz, recently tweeted: “My favorite NBA tradition is pretending that we don’t know Caruso can dunk every time he dunks.”
That about sums it up. Caruso doesn’t frequently get into the scoring act, but when he’s coming down the lane, look out. He’ll put it down on an unsuspecting defender’s head.
3. LeBron and Caruso are a historic duo
The Wall Street Journal recently called Caruso “The LeBron of playing with LeBron.” In that story, the WSJ analyzed James’ pairings with hundreds of teammates throughout his career and found that no combination of LeBron with a teammate has produced a better net rating than Caruso. Their net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) when on the floor together this season is +18.6 points. James never reached that level with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving.
Caruso’s skillset pairs well with James on a couple of levels. Offensively, Caruso doesn’t need the ball to be effective. He can back cut or spot up on the perimeter to help James thrive as a distributor. The Lakers will also run pick-and-rolls between Caruso and James and vice versa. Since Caruso is a high-level defender, that’s bound to help the pairing perform well on the floor together, too.
And Caruso certainly knows how to set James up for highlights. It seems like once a game that the pair takes off on a 2-on-1 fastbreak. James usually gives the ball up to Caruso. Then Caruso normally floats the ball toward the rim for James to hammer home.
4. He was a G League player before this season
In 2018-19, Caruso played 25 games in the NBA and 27 games for the Lakers’ G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers. Two years prior, Caruso didn’t sniff the NBA while hooping for the Oklahoma City Blue in the NBA’s G League.
Caruso put up numbers in the G League – across three seasons, he averaged 14.4 points, 6.0 assists and 2.1 steals per game. But after going undrafted and spending the majority of three seasons in the G League, the odds of Caruso breaking out for an NBA Finals team didn’t seem high.
5. Caruso is a lock-down defender
Caruso isn’t shy about getting up into a ball-handler and trying to pressure them into mistakes. That, along with solid off-ball anticipation, is what made Caruso into Texas A&M’s all-time steals leader and helped him average 1.1 steals per game in bench minutes this season.
But Caruso’s impact may best be summed up in the field goal percentage he’s allowed to players who shoot while he’s guarding them. According to NBA Stats, Caruso has allowed a 40.9 field-goal percentage when guarding a shooter in this year’s playoffs. That’s the same percentage as one Defensive Player of the Year, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even if Caruso didn’t rack up steals, the way he limits his opponents’ scoring makes a difference all by itself.