Alex Caruso is nailing down the details with the Chicago Bulls

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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 as they formed up in the fruitful pursuit of an 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 in a Zoom interview. “[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.”

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 have 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 his ability to be physical and get guys open is pretty
good.”

Caruso reunited 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 appeared, 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.”

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.”



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