Bulls’ Alex Caruso turning heads with defensive play in camp

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Caruso turning heads with defensive play in training camp originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago Bulls have only completed three practices in training camp, but recent free-agent signing Alex Caruso is already turning heads.

And the fifth-year guard is doing so in exactly the way he was advertised: By putting his nose to the grindstone on the defensive end.

“We were doing just dribble-handoff drills today and working on guards busting through screens and not getting screened, and one of the assistants brought me over and said you do such a great job of getting through screens,” Caruso said after Thursday’s practice. “I told him, ‘Well, for three years that’s all I was allowed to do.’”

That quip references Caruso’s specialized role with the Los Angeles Lakers, wherein he focused on disrupting opposing ballhandlers all over the floor. 

But for a guy who went undrafted in 2017 and began his NBA career bouncing around Summer and G League rosters, even the opportunity to roll around in the mud had to be earned.

“When I was on two-way (contract), fighting for a spot and a little bit that first year trying to earn my role in LA, I had a limited role on offense. I was more of a spacer, screener, ball-mover. But I knew I was out there to play defense, and I knew that got me playing time,” Caruso said. “I was just trying to get on the court and did what I could to get out there, and a lot of that was the defensive side of the ball. And the more reps you get the better you get at it, and I’ve been doing that for a couple years now.’’

In fact, Caruso has blossomed into one of the league’s best point-of-attack defenders, an area in which the Bulls mightily struggled last season. Their perimeter players’ inability to consistently shed screens too often unlocked easy pick-and-roll reads for opposing guards, and easy at-the-basket opportunities for opposing bigs.

Caruso, along with Lonzo Ball, can go a long way toward changing that, according to Billy Donovan.

“I think some of it was youthfulness — you know, like, those guys learning that stuff. And kind of also anticipating, ‘OK, here's what's coming,’” Donovan said of the 2020-21 Bulls struggles defending at the point of attack. “I think Alex has got a real good understanding of how to defend in pick-and-roll. I think Lonzo does too. Those guys can be physical guards and they have some length and size.”

Bulls pick-and-roll defense 2020-21

 

Pick-and-Roll Ball-Handler

Pick-and-Roll Roll-Man

Opponent Possessions Per Game

23.7 (28th)

8.4 (29th)

Opponent Points Per Possession

0.92 (27th)

1.25 (29th)

Opponent Points Per Game

21.9 (30th)

10.5 (30th)

Donovan crossed paths with Caruso in the past as an opponent on the collegiate level, and as a coach during Caruso’s 2016-17 stint with Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G League affiliate.

“Really smart. I love the fact that he's a verbal player. He's always talking, trying to get guys in the right spot and communicating on both ends of the floor,” Donovan said. “I've always been impressed (by him). Good size. Really good with his feet defensively.”

Even offensively, the Bulls’ head coach said he has seen growth in Caruso’s game, particularly as a shooter. He canned a career-high 40 percent of his 3-point attempts last season with the Lakers, and Donovan noted improvements in his mid-range and floater game as well.

But Caruso’s defense is unquestionably his biggest strength. The Bulls hope he brings that in droves, and that it can trickle down to the rest of the roster, where defensive questions abound.

“That’s part of being a great team is recognizing weaknesses and working on getting better at them,” Caruso said. “For me, I don’t have as many defensive weaknesses as some other guys, and they might have more offensive strengths than me. It’s just that leaning on each other and getting better.’’

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