More
Alex Caruso is nailing down the details with the Chicago Bulls

Alex Caruso is nailing down the details with the Chicago Bulls

Over Alex Caruso's six seasons as a professional basketball player, he has navigated through a shifting landscape of teams, roles and expectations.

His career began as an undrafted rookie with the Oklahoma City Blue. Then, he burst into the Hollywood spotlight with the Los Angeles Lakers and played a significant role while winning his first NBA championship. And after earning a lucrative contract from the Chicago Bulls, Caruso has now taken on the responsibility of major minutes on a retooled playoff contender in the Windy City. 

Injuries, plus the physical and mental toll of playing in the league, can jostle a player out of a rhythm. When Caruso needs to recalibrate, he often hones in on a different type of shot.

"Golf is the great analogy for anything in life to be honest," Caruso told Basketball News. "[Because of] how much stress there is on that and how much mental fortitude you have to have — patience, [and] the ability to take in a bunch of information and create or formulate a game plan and try and act on it. But the thing for golf, for me, is just really to get away. It's kind of one of my only hobbies."

Custom Patch Hats

Caruso's second sport is well-documented. He's played with his father at Pebble Beach, and he competed in the American Century Championship this summer. Caruso says that, like developing a swing in golf, basketball is all about muscle memory and disciplined repetition. When your shot is off — just like in golf — sometimes you just have to lean on what works for you.

"Something that I realized, through golf swings sometimes, is if I'm poking the ball or I'm slicing it too much, getting back to the basics and just having more of a feel sometimes [works]. I apply that to my basketball games," Caruso said. "If I feel like I'm forcing something too much or things aren't going my way, I just try to get back to the basics [and] get back to what feels right. My natural abilities got me to a really good spot in life and with this game, so that's something I always kind of fall back on."

Like with his golf game, Caruso believes the Bulls have to rediscover what "feels right."

Chicago is running back a largely similar roster from their first season of an overhaul in 2021-22. Given their late-year fade, sixth-place finish in the Eastern Conference and quiet first-round exit from the playoffs, the Bulls may appear to be sitting on their hands on the surface. However, Caruso emphasized that when Chicago was healthy and locked in, as they were in the first stages of last season, the roster had palpable success.

The Bulls were on top of the East standings for 47 days, second only to the Miami Heat, and held the first seed as late as Feb. 25. They had the NBA's 10th-ranked defense through the end of the 2021 calendar year; that fell to 22nd by the end of the regular season. To Caruso, a return to the top means reemphasizing the details of what had the Bulls clicking last winter.

"Obviously, we had a little bit of bad luck with injuries last year. That doesn't help," Caruso said. "I think in the beginning of the year, we were first in the East, we had a great Defensive Rating [and the] offense was doing everything they needed to do as far as moving the ball, creating open shots. And then, through a little bit of adversity in the year, we dropped a little bit of discipline in certain areas of the game.

"I think that's something that, if you're trying to win — and win in the postseason — those are things that you got to be consistent at."

Javonte Green and Derrick Jones Jr. are back, Patrick Williams has a full summer after an injury-riddled second season, and Andre Drummond is joining the fold to back up Nikola Vucevic. Caruso says those guys all make a defensive difference, and even leading scorers DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine represent an athletic presence. But when everyone's healthy, the first line of defense comes from two ex-Laker teammates in Caruso and Lonzo Ball. 

Caruso averaged a career-high 1.7 steals per game in his first year as a Bull. Had he played enough games, he likely would have warranted All-Defensive consideration. He deflected the ball 3.4 times per game in 2021-22, tied for fourth-most among all NBA players. Chicago was 8.5 points stingier per 100 defensive possessions with Caruso on the floor too — a differential in the 96th percentile of all players, per Cleaning the Glass.

The now-veteran guard has this remarkable, innate ability to visualize a tree of outcomes on any defensive possession. He describes his defense like he's accounting for a multiverse, then whittling down the possibilities until he reaches the branch he wants. The pacing of the shot clock, the rhythm of an opponent's dribble and the locations of his teammates (as he alluded to in the below video) all help Caruso wade through uncertainty.

"[In the] professional game, the more information you can have and understand before a play takes place, the better chance you have of a successful stop, or offensive possession, whatever it is," Caruso explained. "The court is so big and the three-point line's so far away. And, nowadays, everybody's playing pace-and-space offense where they're trying to spread everybody out and take advantage of 1-on-1 matchups.

"For me, it's just about creating advantages for myself. These guys are already so good; if I try to play them 1-on-1, just head-up, I could play the best defense of my life and they still might score. So for me, it's just trying to create advantages as much as I can. The best advantage you have on defense is your teammates, so I try to use them as much as possible, whether they're even aware of it or not."

Pesky screen navigation had become a tool for defenses to gunk up today's pick-and-roll-happy attacks. Caruso excels as a screen irritant, using patience and precision to read a ball-handler's choices. He revels in the finer points of defending screens and, after six seasons as a pro, has built up an encyclopedia of tricks and tendencies.

"[It takes] a little bit of anticipation [and] being able to control the ball-handler," Caruso said. "If he has a chance to reject you, and you try to get skinny and get over the top of the screen, then it's just going to increase that 2-on-1 advantage that they're trying to get with the pick-and-roll. It's just about anticipating, but then, trying to be like a defensive back in the NFL. I'm trying to mirror what they're doing. I'm not trying to necessarily beat them to the spot. I just want to make sure that I'm in their hip pocket, moving as they're moving.

"Then, once we get to the point of the screen, I just connect to their body — hip-to-hip, chest-to-chest — and just try to get skinny and get through the screen. So, it comes with a lot of practice too. For years, I've been fighting over ball-screens trying to get better at it, and it's been useful for me."

Of course, the second challenge is literally getting through that screen, set by some of the league's most imposing physical obstacles. Caruso quickly lists Steven Adams and Jonas Valanciunas, two notorious bruisers, among the league's toughest screen-setters.

His third choice — after some thought — is Draymond Green.

"Just because he sets illegal screens and they let him get away with it," said a smirking Caruso, who concedes that he, too, tries to push referees' tolerance.

"On defense, I probably foul a little more than I should, but the refs can't call a foul every single time," Caruso added. "So it's like — Draymond's gonna get Steph [Curry] open eventually. He's gonna run into you and the refs aren't going to call it. So just his ability to be physical and get guys open is pretty good."

Caruso reunited with Ball last season, and the two immediately clicked. Ball was similarly effective when healthy and placed just behind Caruso with 3.2 deflections per game. In the 460 minutes the duo played together, it outscored opponents by 9.5 points per 100 possessions. 

Ball is currently recovering from a torn meniscus and his return date is still up in the air. But Caruso can't wait to have him back on the floor, saying that they "see a lot of the same stuff on the court." After two years apart, Caruso believes Ball has rediscovered his own strengths and seems more comfortable as a pro.

"I think he started playing his game a little more, and I think he might have tried to fit into a role a little bit in L.A . — and you kind of have to when you have superstar players around you for that last year like he did," Caruso said. "I think he got the chance in New Orleans to play his game the same way he's played from high school, to college, to get into the pros.

"There's a reason he was the No. 2 overall pick and got to where he was. He's an elite player at the stuff that he does, and I think he's doing things that he does best. He's able to do those with us and the Bulls. I'm excited for him to come back and have a good year."

Get 12 Drinks For Free - Yerbae

While Caruso and Ball battled injuries, Ayo Dosunmu stepped into the fray as a rookie second-round pick and flashed defensive promise. The Bulls hope to further bolster the backcourt stoppage with Dalen Terry, their No. 18 overall selection from this year's draft. Caruso recognizes that learning defense in a trial-by-fire environment can be challenging, and he was impressed with how Dosunmu handled the burden.

"Ayo was, basically all last year, just playing off the feel," Caruso said of his young teammate. "Your first year in the league, you don't understand concepts really. You don't understand coverages. You're seeing guys play, and you're playing against guys for the first time. You're seeing their best moves for the first time; they're probably going to beat you most of the time. So for him to be able to compete the way he did last year on defense is a great sign for a guy in his first year."

That's the lesson Caruso is learning, and teaching, as he grapples with the pro lifestyle. There's no textbook answer to playing defense in the NBA, winning at the highest level or even maintaining a consistent golf game. Sometimes it all comes down to building a knowledge base and feeling out the right path.

Learning what "feels right" can also be an experimental process. Caruso's mastery of the on-court intricacies has already set him apart as a defender. Those nitty-gritty details are also helping him learn how to evolve his nutrition habits and stay best attuned to the wear-and-tear of the NBA schedule.

Caruso is currently teaming up with ZENB, a plant-based food brand centered in Chicago, and is competing in a cooking competition against former LA Sparks guard Te'a Cooper. The pair will make four dishes out of plant-based alternative foods, and Caruso has been taking careful notes from chef Monti Carlo.

"It's just a fun experience to learn from Chef Monti, who's been in cooking shows herself and has experience, and to just learn some, tricks and trades and figure out some stuff to help myself to be a better cook in the future," Caruso said. 

The 28-year-old averaged 28.0 minutes per game last season, by far a career-high. Caruso's hard-nosed aggression is a signature strength; he's also in the thick of action that can (and did) result in injuries. In 2021-22, he fractured his wrist and missed six weeks, and also missed games due to a foot sprain, concussion and minor hamstring and back issues.

Caruso says he currently feels fine physically, and has gotten in some productive workouts this offseason. But his minute uptick has also forced him to reflect on his habits — be it an increased focus on recovery with massages, cold tubs and lift sessions or altering his diet. Caruso has looked at shifting toward more plant-based foods with inspiration from ZENB. He's also staying regimented with his four meals per day, and, over time, has learned to carefully monitor his hydration.

"Hydration, I think, is one of the things that I overlooked a lot as a young professional," Caruso said. "It's something now that I've realized, when I get the right sugars and salts back into my body through sports drinks [and] electrolyte packets, as well as water, I just have better sleep, [and] I have better workouts the next day... I'm already a slim guy as it is, so for me to be able to maintain weight through an 82-game-plus season, it's something that I've really tried to hone in on and perfect for myself."

In the grand scheme of the NBA, these minute details might seem insignificant. But they've helped Caruso blossom from an undrafted rookie into a defensive fulcrum, and they'll help him and Chicago reach the next tier of contention.

"It's just little things... that I've had to tweak," Caruso said. "Experience is the best teacher, so it's stuff that I've learned from and can hopefully take and put into my regimen moving forward."

Get 12 Drinks For Free - Yerbae
Lingerie
Costumes
Dresses
Sexy Lingerie
Subscribe to our newsletter
SUBSCRIBE
Follow Us
Download Our App!
Stay up-to-date on all things NBA
Copyright © BasketballNews.com 2020. All Rights Reserved.
NBA News & Rumors