Caruso was a cult-hero in Los Angeles, but looked at his experience with the Lakers as the place that taught him about winning. So while this is a two-game homecoming for him, it’s also a chance for his new team to take some valuable steps forward.
LOS ANGELES — Bulls guard Alex Caruso scanned the busy practice gym, examining each of his teammates as he repeated the question.
”Who in here would win ‘Squid Game’?” Caruso said, taking one more glance at a handful of the younger players getting a scrimmage in. ”I know this sounds biased, but it would have to be me. I really think I’m versatile and smart. . . . I’d just figure it out somehow. Yeah, me. I’d just figure it out.”
Doubt him? Then explain how Caruso, an undrafted free agent in 2016, was cut by the 76ers and Thunder and spent some time in the development league before catching on with the Lakers during the 2017 Summer League.
All he did with the Lakers was go from afterthought to cult hero and earn an NBA championship along the way.
So returning to Los Angeles with the Bulls for back-to-back games Sunday and Monday against the Clippers and Lakers wasn’t only important for Caruso from a basketball standpoint. It also was a reminder of where he came from and what he had learned and gave him a chance to talk with his teammates again about the will to succeed.
”Any of the games we lost this year, it wasn’t because we didn’t play hard,” Caruso said. ”There’s always a couple of games for every team every year where you kind of lay an egg with effort, but that’s kind of the lull of the NBA season. That hasn’t been in question with this group. That’s something we can be proud of.
”The first day we showed up before camp even started — voluntarily and then into training camp, the preseason, now — I think everybody on this team wants to win and everybody knows what it takes to win. I’m just trying to help that process, when asked.”
That’s because all Caruso knows is high effort. He wouldn’t have become a rotation player and a key defensive presence with LeBron James & Co. if he didn’t.
”We’re fine in that department,” Caruso said. ”It’s more so about this group evolving and getting used to playing together more than effort, which is great. When you have that, it makes it easier to show up and do your job. It’s different when you don’t have to worry about guys playing hard.”
Caruso also knows there are many more steps the Bulls must take to get where they want to this season.
Facing the Clippers and Lakers in his personal two-game homecoming were great starting points, but they were steps on a very long staircase — one in which he has to remember his priorities.
”I know . . . there is a lot of attention, a lot of people that care about things off the court that might make a big deal of me returning here, but for me it was always about basketball,” Caruso said when asked about his cult-like following. ”I had to try and keep that first because I didn’t have any room for error, didn’t have that room for a misstep or a missed opportunity.
”It just happened to work for me in L.A. And to win a championship with that team, those teammates [and] the coaches, it kind of turned into what it turned into. But for me it was always about basketball first, and I think I kept it like that. I think that’s why I’ve had some success in this game.”
In NBA games and, in his opinion, ”Squid Game.”