Los Angeles Lakers: Alex Caruso should be lone free agent retained

Alex Caruso’s play since entering the rotation proves that he should be the Los Angeles Lakers’ lone free agent retained heading into next season.

The Los Angeles Lakers‘ postseason hopes officially ended on March 22 with a loss to the Brooklyn Nets to put a cap on a largely disappointing season. Injuries played a massive role in their midseason nosedive down the standings (along with suspect roster construction), but Lonzo Ball missing the final 35 games with an ankle injury has opened the door for Alex Caruso to earn a spot on next year’s team.

Caruso is in his final season of a two-year, two-way contract with the Lakers, spending most of his playing time with the G League affiliate South Bay Lakers after going undrafted in the 2016 NBA Draft. He is not the best athlete or accurate shooter, but his overall game is perfect as a backup point guard for any team in the NBA.

AC makes up for his shortcomings with extreme effort and doing the little things every time he steps on the floor. He dives for loose balls and makes smart rotations on defense. These aspects don’t show on a box score, but this type of energy and hustle is contagious for a team and should elevate the rest of the team to perform in the same manner.

His stats are also pretty strong since becoming a rotation player on March 6. In the last 13 games, Caruso is averaging 10.5 points (48.5 percent on 2.5 3-point attempts), 3.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.3 steals and only 1.5 turnovers in 24.4 minutes per game. That’s a balanced and efficient stat line for a backup point guard playing with mostly reserves.

Caruso’s advanced numbers are even more impressive. He boasts a team-high +4.8 plus/minus in those 13 games, besting LeBron James and being one of four players in the rotation to have a positive plus/minus. His net rating and defensive rating trail only Jonathan Williams (only playing 14.5 minutes per game), and it makes sense when you watch how hard he plays.

Looking ahead to the summer, Alex Caruso is a free agent that should have some suitors after his stints in the NBA. Lakers head coach Luke Walton said he sees the makings of an NBA player in Caruso, and “his competitive spirit” is something he “can always hang his hat on” — even when things aren’t going his way — to help him carve out a spot in a NBA rotation.

That’s why it makes sense that the Los Angeles Lakers bring him back on an NBA contract this summer. Caruso won’t be expected to play heavy minutes as long as Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are healthy, but he can play off-ball and let his effort and competitiveness be what propels him to 15-20 minutes per night.

He’s more than capable of running the show for a short stretch of games, and has a calm confidence to his offensive game. Caruso understands when to push the tempo or slow the game down, and is developing as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and spot-up shooter from deep.

Caruso wouldn’t be an expensive signing for the Lakers and understands the system the team has installed over the last two seasons. Even if Luke Walton is relieved of his coaching duties, it’s tough to imagine the team playing a different system with LeBron and Lonzo excelling in their own style of basketball.

He has the perfect bring-your-lunch-pail-to-work style of game that fans love, and the Lakers have lacked this type of player that does the dirty work for a couple seasons. An underrated part of Caruso’s spirit is how he is one of the few players constantly standing up and applauding teammates throughout the game. It shows he’s engaged even when sitting, and visually supporting teammates is a great way to become a well-liked player in the locker room.

With most of the roster heading to free agency after the season, Alex Caruso should be the one player the Los Angeles Lakers bring back, allowing him to back up Lonzo and run the bench unit.