Alex Caruso played four years at Texas A&M. He never averaged double-digit points per game. He never averaged more than 5.0 assists a night. And his 3-point percentage sat at a career 34.0 percent on just a minuscule 2.0 attempts per game. Was it impressive he averaged 2.1 steals in his final season with the Aggies? Not if you ask the other 28 players that ranked ahead of him in that department.
So when the 2016 NBA Draft rolled around, and Caruso’s name never came off the board, gasps didn’t fly out of the Barclays Center. The guy was a good college player who made a fun trip to the Sweet Sixteen. But an NBA player who could make a trip to the NBA Finals? Let’s not be silly, folks!
Caruso’s first chance came with the Philadelphia 76ers. The organization signed him to their Summer League squad, where he appeared in just three of the six games, averaging almost as many turnovers (2.0) as points (3.3). The Oklahoma City Thunder then gave him a chance at training camp before giving him the quick boot. He eventually signed with the franchise’s G-League squad, using 50 games that season to spark another summer league invite by the Los Angeles Lakers. Third team’s the charm?
As usual, the Caruso stat sheet may not have blown anyone away, but his 7.4 points, 3.9 assists, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game on the way to a Summer League Championship was enough to leave the Lakers eager for more. He signed a two-way contract with the franchise, and his foot was officially in the NBA door.
“We talk about next-man-up; that’s how a lot of careers in the NBA get formed,” Caruso told Stacey King on a recent episode of the Gimme The Hot Sause Podcast. “That was me on two-way in LA, right? I was behind Lonzo, and he had a little bit of an injury in his knee there, and then Rondo hurt his hand, and all of a sudden I’m backup point guard playing minutes, and I have a role in the league – a career – and I’m signing a multi-year contract. It’s just stepping stones. Opportunity is going to happen in the league every year.”
Whether it be Tyler Cook grabbing the Bulls final two-way spot in training camp, Alfonzo McKinnie replacing Alize Johnson on the active roster, or Malcolm Hill convincing the front office to move on from Devon Dotson, we know opportunity knocks in the NBA at sporadic times, and only those well-prepared can take advantage.
“I think the satisfying part is that I’ve created a niche in the league, right? Four years ago, nobody knew who I was. I played in summer league, and everyone was like, ‘it’s a good story,’ and then they kind of forget about it or expect it to kind of go away. But, for me, I was just day-by-day putting in the work, putting in the process, to try to get better. Try to understand how I can make this work and how I can make a career,” Caruso told King.
While Caruso may now be an established defensive force making $9.2 million a year, it’s clear his past carries the weight of the present. The ability to turn adversity on its head is what has helped push Caruso up the totem pole, and the new-look Bulls need that mentality more than ever in the wake of their recent slump.
Harsher than the five losses in seven games – including three blowouts on national television – has been the Chicago injury report. Zach LaVine, Javonte Green, and Derrick Jones Jr. are all working their way back from varying bumps and bruises. Meanwhile, Lonzo Ball will soon join Patrick Williams in post-surgery-rehab.
It may not be exactly what Caruso experienced during his journey as an undrafted free agent, but guys like Alfonzo McKinnie, Troy Brown Jr., Tyler Cook, Malcolm Hill, and even Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White can channel some of that underdog spirit Caruso drags into the gym each day. The Bulls will need all of those players to step up in various ways over a stretch that will see them play the most games in the league heading toward the All-Star break.
The Bulls are simply stuck in a next-man-up reality, but they have the epitome of a next-man-up player there to lead the way. Let’s see what steps they can take.