Alex Caruso holds the ball during a Bulls game.
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Alex Caruso Has Been the Chicago Bulls Secret Weapon, Both On-Court and Off

The Chicago Bulls have been a much more fun team to watch this season (well, at least earlier this season) than recent past seasons. The addition of stars like DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball certainly helps, but a player that has made a huge impact that people may not have expected is the one and only "Carushow", himself. Aside from having one of my favorite nicknames in the NBA currently, guard Alex Caruso has proven himself to be an essential part of this season's Chicago Bulls.

If you're not privy to Caruso's skillset, you may look at the stat sheet and think, "Really? Him?" Yes, really. Him. Caruso averages 8.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game this season, which seems like nothing to write home about. But Caruso's impact on the team isn't going to show up on the stat sheet.

Alex Caruso Has Been A Secret Weapon for Chicago

Alex Caruso blocks a shot from Terry Rozier

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As I'm sure you can tell from the stats I just shared, Caruso's greatest impact isn't his scoring capability or offense, but his impeccable defense. He suffered from a fractured wrist earlier in the season (for which Grayson Allen was ejected and did not apologize, Caruso shared on JJ Redick's The Old Man and The Three podcast), causing him to miss seven weeks of play. Even with this injury, Caruso is averaging 1.8 steals per game, one of the highest in the league. He is any team's defensive dream — smart, scrappy, energetic and confident. Earlier in the season, before being plagued with injuries, the Bulls had a top-10 defensive rating thanks to Caruso and Lonzo Ball.

Caruso went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft, despite an impressive college career as point guard at Texas A&M. Although he went undrafted, Caruso was signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the fall of that year. He was eventually waived and then joined the G League. In 2017, Caruso played with the Los Angeles Lakers during the NBA Summer League and had the chance to start due to an injury to Lonzo Ball. After his performance in that game, he signed with the team. Caruso was an important role player for the Lakers during their playoff run in 2020, where he won his first NBA championship.

Guess what was a major factor in the Lakers' success that year? Their defense.

The Lakers Let Carsuo Walk

Alex Caruso and LeBron James high-five

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Of course, the team was led by two offensive powerhouses in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but this fact shouldn't take away the fact that their exceptional defense was a huge part of their success. Three-point shooting is such a massive part of the game today, and the Lakers only ranked 21st in three-point percentage during that season, leaving some holes in the team's offense. Caruso's energy on defense was a big help to this championship team.

And then the Lakers essentially decided to keep Talen Horton-Tucker over Caruso. I'm not sure whose idea that was, but I think it's pretty clear to them by now that it was a mistake. The Lakers had to make some difficult (and interesting) decisions because of the salary cap, but I can't say that I understand any of the choices they made to arrive at their current team.

They basically took a championship-winning team and blew it up. Everyone knows that Russell Westbrook has the ability to be "Mr. Triple-Double". But it's pretty easy to deduce that Westbrook wouldn't have the same touches as he did on the Thunder on a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

When it came to choosing Horton-Tucker over Caruso, I was baffled. Horton-Tucker is younger than Caruso, which, I'm sure, is something that carried a lot of weight in this decision. It's always a gamble — do you take a chance on the potential of a younger player, or do you stick with the older, more experienced player, whose presence has a major impact on your team's success?

If the two players we're talking about are Horton-Tucker and Caruso, you'd better believe I would go with Caruso. This season, Horton-Tucker is averaging 9.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. Sure, he's averaging 1.3 points more than Caruso per game this season, but with absolutely none of the defensive impact. With players like LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook (well, playing the way they expected him to play), defense and outside shooting ability should have been the Lakers' priority. With a final record of 33-49, it's clear the Lakers made some poor decisions that they're now paying for.

Caruso Cruising in Chicago

Alex Caruso shileds the ball from Fred VanVleet

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Head Coach Billy Donovan and the Bulls really owe the Lakers some kind of "thank you" gift for letting Caruso go in the 2021 offseason. The addition of Caruso to the Bulls' bench, which includes the likes of Patrick Williams and Javonte Green, has given them a much more balanced team. The offensive power of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic is balanced out by the defensive efforts of Bulls guards Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball. Even when it comes to younger players like Ayo Dosunmu, Caruso is helping the Bulls get to the next level both on the floor and on the sidelines.

Caruso is one of those defensive players that opponents hate having to play against — he's an aggressive, relentless pest who's able to think quickly, get creative, shut even the most talented offensive players down, as well as force unnecessary turnovers and deflections. I think that a lot of Caruso's drive and desire to succeed come from his journey to the NBA.

After being passed over by teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Pelicans Portland Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Texas A&M star fought his way to the NBA. Nothing during his time in The Association has come easy and Caruso's style of play is fueled by that struggle. It's not something that will appear on any power rankings, but it's an intangible that makes Caruso an asset to any team he's currently rostered by.

I find his breed of scrappiness in other players who also came from the G League — the Raptors' Pascal Siakam, the Bucks' Khris Middleton, Utah's Jordan Clarkson, the Suns' Cameron Payne, etc. There seems to be an extra edge to them like they've still got something to prove, and I love watching players like that.

Caruso's regular-season absence due to his wrist energy really brought to light just how much he brings to the team, especially to the Bulls defense. Again, he isn't the type of player who's going to stuff the stat sheet night after night, but he is the type of player whose energy and defense creates success for his team. In Caruso (and Ball's) absence, the Bulls allowed more than six more points per game than they did with both players on the floor. When you have a lineup full of scorers, your defense will suffer.

Not only have the Bulls lacked both Caruso's and Ball's defense, they have also lacked their defensive communication. No offense, but All-Star DeRozan isn't exactly known for being a defensive powerhouse, right? Without two of the team's strongest defenders, they also missed their defensive intelligence and communication, resulting in even weaker defensive sequences. Having Caruso back on the floor will not only add his individual defense but will also help provide more defensive clarity and intention to the rest of the team.

Young, Scrappy & Hungry

Alex Caruso during a Bulls shootaround

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I keep using the word "scrappy" to describe Alex Caruso, but it's such an accurate word for him as a player. He's not really one to start fights or talk trash with other players, no, but he is determined and always plays hard. He's the first to hit the deck when a ball gets loose. If he has the opportunity for a steal, you can bet he's going to come out of nowhere and take it. His energy and enthusiasm for the game never seem to waiver, and that kind of energy is contagious. His energy and effort translate to his teammates and to the fans in the arena and it's a big reason why the Bulls avoided the Play-In Tournament.

Caruso jerseys are becoming more commonly seen at Chicago home games and the crowd erupts when he's on the floor because fans know that he's going to give it his all every time. In their playoff push as the 6-seed in the Eastern Conference, I have no doubt that Carushow's presence will be felt by all, especially the opposing team's offense.

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