Bulls’ Alex Caruso looking forward to first matchup against Lakers

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Caruso expects emotions before first matchup against Lakers originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Competing for, and winning, a championship is an experience that builds bonds for life.

To do so with a franchise as storied as the Los Angeles Lakers, for a fanbase as rabid as any in sports, and in the jersey of the team that afforded you your first NBA opportunity makes that already-rewarding experience all the more special.

So, yes, Alex Caruso is looking forward to facing his old team Monday night, when the Chicago Bulls visit the Lakers on the second night of a Staples Center back-to-back.

“I know there’s going to be some emotions on my part,” Caruso said after keying the Bulls’ bounceback win over the Clippers on Sunday. “It was a special place for me for four years.”

Those four years were the first of Caruso’s NBA career. In them, he fast-tracked his evolution from undrafted free agent to linchpin role player on a title-winning team, renowned for his disruptive defensive skills, basketball IQ and athleticism.

But with reported luxury-tax concerns in mind, the Lakers’ contract offer to Caruso during last offseason’s free agency period fell well short of the four-year, $37 million sheet the Bulls eventually signed him to. In a recent appearance on JJ Redick’s “The Old Man and The Three” podcast, Caruso indicated the Lakers’ initial offer boiled down to less than $7.5 million annually, whereas he was seeking the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception — roughly $10 million per season.

Needless to say, the Lakers’ loss has been the Bulls’ gain. Throughout their 9-4 start, Caruso has been a focal point of the Bulls’ fifth-ranked defense — transcending weight class to take on defensive assignments from Paul George to James Harden to Jerami Grant, and averaging the most deflections (4.4) and third-most steals (2.5) in the NBA in just 28.2 minutes per game. He’s been a mainstay in the team’s effective closing lineups, and Billy Donovan even slid him in with the starters for the Clippers contest.

“He is one of the highest-IQ players I've played with," DeMar DeRozan said of Caruso after the Clippers game. “Just to have someone with that natural IQ on the court, it's just gonna make so many things easier for you, offensively and defensively. He kind of anchored us, especially defensively, taking on the challenge, guarding PG (George). You gotta feed off that.”

The Lakers’ fanbase, whose chagrin at their team low-balling Caruso was plastered across Twitter in the wake of that podcast appearance, certainly did. Their energy should be palpable in welcoming him back Monday.

So did his teammates.

“Who? I don’t know him. I don’t know that guy,” Anthony Davis recently joked to reporters when asked about Caruso. “No, it’s gonna be fun playing against AC again. All the stuff he brought to our team, to win a championship and to our team last year, he was a big part of what we did here.”

Caruso concurred.

“Doing it (winning a championship) in LA with the Lakers — historically, one of the best franchises in the league — it’s really special,” Caruso said. “The bond I have with the fans, teammates, coaching staff, player development guys, front office, it’s still there, it still resonates. You still have great bonds and relationships with them. So it’ll be great to see them.

“But obviously when the ball goes up I’ll be pretty focused on the game.”

The Lakers and Bulls both know what that means.

RELATED: From Lakers to Bulls, Lonzo Ball cherishes journey: 'I'm where I'm supposed to be'

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