Bulls' Alex Caruso does little things that make big impact

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Alex Caruso does little things that make big impact originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Alex Caruso may never be a Defensive Player of the Year. He has yet to earn All-Defense recognition in his five-year career.

But Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan put it best when describing his impact.

“I think people that are preparing to play against him or to coach against him can really see the value that he brings to a team,” he said before Wednesday’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

There are ways to begin quantifying that value. Caruso ranks second in the NBA in steals (2.5) and deflections (4.2) per game. He’s the Bulls’ leading rebounder since Nikola Vučević tested positive for COVID-19, pulling down seven boards per contest (1.8 offensive) in his last four appearances. His average of six assists in that span points to his IQ as a playmaker, especially in transition sprinting off of forced turnovers.

But there are also plays unseen or unrecognized by the box score. He routinely calls out opponents’ sets on out-of-bounds plays. He tips out long offensive boards, generating second chance opportunities, over centers. He stays stout guarding across the positional spectrum, from darty guards to big wings and forwards.

All while standing 6-foot-4.

“It’s like the game against the Lakers. I don’t know what he took, one shot, no shots. And he still impacts the game without scoring,” Donovan said. “He guards a lot of really good players. He gets rebounds. He gets steals. He gets deflections. He’s in the right spot. He breaks plays up. He keeps plays alive. A lot of the stuff he does, it’s hard to equate how valuable it is because a lot of times you don’t get a lot of recognition for that stuff.

“I think people that watch him play or watch us play can see the value he brings as you watch film and you look at it. I get a lot of times the headlines are going to be ‘who was the leading scorer?’ or ‘how many points did a guy score?’ or ‘who had this or who had that?’ And a lot of times you’re not going to necessarily look at the guy that, ‘Oh, this guy got five deflections. He got four steals. This guy got six rebounds.’ A lot of it is not necessarily stuff that maybe is talked about a whole lot.”

Donovan spoke those words before Caruso submitted 12 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, two blocks and two steals against the Trail Blazers. Caruso and Lonzo Ball’s fingerprints were all over the Bulls’ dominant first half in that affair, combining to hold Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum scoreless for nearly the game’s first 19 minutes, and to 10-for-32 shooting on the night.

"I think it was a collective unit," said Ball. "Not one guy can stop those guys, they're great basketball players. So I think it goes to the whole team, but we gotta keep it up for 48 minutes."

Indeed, these Bulls won’t be satisfied with losing results. 

But the big picture is a completely transformed defensive unit on the perimeter, anchored by Ball and Caruso. Their additions have spurred massive improvements to the Bulls’ screen navigation, switchability and turnover-forcing capacity as a group, resulting in a 103.7 defensive rating that, while ninth after Wednesday’s loss, remains roughly half a point per 100 possessions off the top-five status they’ve held most of the season.

“We didn’t have the physical length, size and athleticism that we have right now,” Donovan said of the Bulls’ defense in 2020-21. “Alex and Lonzo, they give you just a different dimension.”

Caruso entered the starting lineup after the Bulls’ loss to the Golden State Warriors on Friday. Donovan called it an adjustment born out of the Bulls’ need for shooting and shot-creation with the first unit without Vučević. When the All-Star center returns?

“We’ll evaluate that,” Donovan said. “I think with [Vučević] coming back, we’ll probably be a little bit closer to the way we’ve played before. I thought the one thing that was a little bit challenging for us in Golden State just going back and watching the tape was we had [power forwards and centers] that no one was really a stretch guy per se. 

“Moving that around gives us, with Alex in the starting lineup, another ball-handler, a creator, a guy that can spread the floor, someone who can drive you. But we’ll have to evaluate. I think you find out things when a key guy on your team goes down. You find out a little bit more about your team, especially in a road trip like this.”

Whether starting or off the bench, though, trust Caruso will be on the court during the Bulls’ highest-leverage moments. He’s too important not to be.

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