Coming into college, Romeo Langford was a five-star recruit and the second-ranked shooting guard in the country. At New Albany High School in his hometown, the Indiana native decided to play all four years there instead of choosing the prep school route.
Langford’s natural ability to score the ball and make plays for others garnered plenty of national attention and elevated him to the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game, where the world was introduced to his talents on a grander stage. The impressive, young swingman went on to be recognized as his home state’s Mr. Basketball in his senior season before committing to the area’s most popular school, Indiana University.
Hoosier Nation was absolutely thrilled to have Langford join their family. Not only was he a local, but he was also a star in the making that could likely propel Indiana to the top of the Big Ten as a freshman. Unfortunately for both parties, though, the season didn’t turn out to be what they had hoped for.
Langford had to battle through multiple injuries from the beginning of the year, including a lingering torn ligament on his shooting hand that clearly affected and hindered his capability to knock down shots. While he could have gone down an easier path by sitting out, Langford decided to play through the pain and show his teammates that he wasn’t going to school just for a one-way ticket to the NBA.
Alas, Indiana needed him to be healthier. After starting the season 12-2, the team went on to win just one of its next 13 games. There were losing streaks of seven and five during the stretch from early January to late February. And despite closing the season by winning four in a row, a first-round conference tournament loss sent the Hoosiers to the National Invitation Tournament. It would be Langford’s final game wearing the candy stripes.
The next stop for Langford is the NBA. Most mock drafts seem to have him ranged between the lower end of the lottery and the middle of the first round.
“I guess you could say I’m under the radar now,” Langford said at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “So now I gotta just earn my respect back, and I feel like when I have my respect back and I’m fighting for these positions, fighting to be a higher pick. I feel like that shows that I am passionate about the game and I enjoy it.
“It really doesn’t surprise me based off what they saw. That’s what they’re going off of. But I feel like it doesn’t really matter what number you get picked. It matters what team and the fit and where you produce once you get there.”
According to a staffer at Indiana, the best may be yet to come for the standout 19-year-old guard.
With the NBA Draft only 16 nights away, Basketball Insiders is giving you an Insider’s Look at Romeo Langford through the eyes of this staffer, who spent a great amount of time with him during the season in Bloomington.
The second that Langford arrived on campus, it was clear he was special.
In the first month of practice, the confident freshman didn’t take long to cement his presence in the program. Indiana’s coaching staff uses a point system in their drills. At the end of the sessions, the leader in points gets bragging rights and is allowed to give his input on a few things regarding practice methods.
According to the staffer, who wishes to remain anonymous, as soon as Langford learned about the competition, he went right at the team’s veteran leader—6-foot-8, 232-pound forward Juwan Morgan.
“He was competing at the highest level against a senior – who’d been there for four years, who’s bigger and stronger,” the staffer told Basketball Insiders. “It didn’t take long for [Romeo] to start winning the practice points. You could tell right away just given his body, his athleticism, his length, his speed, everything that is his package. He’s just different, that’s why he’s gonna be a lottery pick.”
Despite the ailing thumb, Langford was never shy to attack the basket. Using his 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame, he drove past guys and finished with grace with both hands, making it look like he wasn’t even trying. The size and length are big reasons why, and he’s able to control it well.
The staffer recalls two memorable games that stuck out to him during the season.
“At Penn State in the first half,” the staffer said. “He scored like eight straight on some silly shots – stepback in the corner over Mike Watkins, stepback to the top of the key. That was definitely one. He had a moment probably every game. He’d rip baseline when the baseline wasn’t even open and he’d tight-rope it and finish at the rim. You’d just wonder, ‘How’d he do that?’
“Another moment was in the Maryland game [where he dropped 28 points]. In the second half, he was cookin’. There was flashes every game with a stepback or a one-dribble from the NBA line to get to the rim. Whatever it was, he just makes it look so easy.”
There is no question about Langford’s work ethic. The staffer asserts he’s very coachable, is a great teammate, isn’t confrontational and certainly isn’t “soft” as some perceive him to be. Rather, Langford experienced the hardships of a tough season with the Hoosiers and grinding through the injuries was one of the first times he had dealt with adversity. Yet, Langford managed and made the best out of it.
“He averaged 16.5 points in arguably the best league in America,” the staffer said. “Whoever was guarding him, their number one objective was to stop Romeo Langford and he still averaged 16.5. So when people say if he ever backed away from a challenge, his numbers kinda spoke for themselves.”
Langford also tied for the top usage percentage (26.1) among freshman in the Big Ten with Ignas Brazdeikis and boasted the 11th-best in the conference overall. Looking at ball screen and pick-and-roll statistics on Synergy, he and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston were two of the top players in the country.
Mind you, this was all with the weight of the state and university on his hampered shoulders.
“Obviously in the state of Indiana, there’s a ton of pressure on him, and I thought he handled that like a true pro, whether it was signing autographs, taking pictures, whatever it may be,” the staffer said. “He never gave the cold shoulder to any kids or anything like that and I kinda think that speaks volumes about how he was brought up and raised and all that type of stuff.”
Langford is extremely close to his family. He came up through the church, knows the difference between right and wrong and is as respectful as they come. We’re talking about “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” type of manners. Yes, there are some nights where he stays up late or plays Fortnite for a little too long, but he doesn’t smoke or drink, isn’t rude, didn’t miss class or rebel against anybody.
As far as his circle goes, it’s pretty tight. Due to the bond he has with his mother (Sabrina), father (Tim) and sisters (Tiffany and Tisha), Langford is well-protected. His personal trainers, Jonathan Jeanty and Kenneth Dion Lee, are good friends of the family and have been around Romeo since he was in elementary school. Tim seems to be “running his show” when it comes to making decisions and determining who is a positive influence on his son.
Romeo is inspired by everyone in his family and wants to make them proud.
“I feel like they have a big part in me being the man I am today,” Langford said. “And one of the reasons I am playing this sport [is] just so I can be able to provide and help my family in the long run. They’ve helped me a lot. Just being there for me. If I have any questions, I can go to them and talk.”
Family is where Langford gets his personality from too. He’s a quiet individual and it’s not easy to hear him when he speaks in a crowded room. He isn’t much of a talker in the first place. Even so, he is easy to get along with and very likable.
“At first, he’ll probably come off as shy and softspoken, but once he gets comfortable around you and trusts that his best interest is in your hands, [he’ll open up],” the staffer said.
“He has a lot of people kinda pulling him, so he’s able to identify who’s there for him and who’s trying to use him. He has a really good sense of that. So once he kinda gets past that initial shy stage, he’s a really, really good kid about the right things.”
On the court, Langford’s skill set is extremely versatile, making him the perfect fit for a constantly evolving league in the association.
“I just feel like my game translates real well for the NBA, where the NBA’s going right now and I’m just built for it,” Langford said.
“His athleticism and his size and his frame allow him to do a lot. I think right away, he’s gonna be able to be a two-way player,” the staffer said. “Obviously, he still has a lot to learn defensive side, but just given his measurables and his frame and his lateral ability and his quickness, his jumping ability – he, right away, will be able to guard the two and the three in the league at his size and his athleticism. So I think that’ll translate seamlessly.”
As specified by the staffer, Langford is at his best with the ball in his hands. He can operate in the two-man game as the handler, set solid ball screens and is adept at making sharp outlet passes in transition.
“He has good IQ,” the staffer continued. “He kinda knows what he’s looking for, whether to throw back off a ball screen, if they put two on the ball or if nobody hedges or shows, he can get in the lane, he’s got really good touch on the floater.”
In furthering his assessment, the staffer believes Langford has to improve his catch-and-shoot threes. The Indiana product is much better and visibly comfortable off the bounce on pull-up jumpers and stepbacks, and he personally agrees with both notions.
Langford plans to stay in the gym to continuously work on his shot. He knows that the thumb injury affected the way the numbers turned out. After all, if you can’t firmly grip and handle the basketball, how can you properly shoot it?
At the same time, he doesn’t use that as an excuse and understands his mechanics could still use some work.
“My form needs a couple things tweaked here and there,” Langford said. “But I can still shoot the ball. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that…”
The staffer appreciates Langford’s candor and backs his claim.
“I do legit think that his thumb was an issue for him,” the staffer said. “Now, I also think that throughout the course of the year, he got better, he became a better shooter through our program, through the repetition, through everything that we were working with him on. He got better as the year progressed. It wasn’t necessarily his strong suit coming in because he’s just so talented.
“In the end, the jumper now – it’s almost like he didn’t really have to [have one] because he just gets by people and finishes at the rim. I think that was misconstrued a little bit. I think he’s gonna get better and better as a shooter. as his pro career kinda develops and he gets in the right system and he’s able to rep it out and his thumb gets healthy.”
Langford and the staffer both contend that it was a shame he couldn’t go through the full NBA Draft Combine process.
The staffer would’ve predicted him to finish in the top five in at least in every category. Langford would’ve bet on himself to place at the very top of the 2019 crop of prospects.
“Without a doubt, yes, sir,” Langford said.”I feel like I would’ve performed pretty well out there. At least I wish I could’ve [done] some of the testing.”
One particular question often comes up to the soon-to-be rookie: Do you really love the game of basketball?
Langford maintains this is a common misconception due to how he reacts to big plays and his calm, cool and collected manner on the hardwood.
“The main thing I want guys to realize is how much passion I have for the game, how much love I have for the game and how that dog mentality—actually having it, though it may not seem like it the way I carry myself,” Langford says.
“Just ‘cause I don’t show too much emotion out on the court on the outside doesn’t mean I don’t really love the game, which I actually do love. . . I’m not gonna change myself. Damian Lillard doesn’t really show too much emotion. He has a stone face most of the time, but people don’t question his passion and stuff for the game, so it really doesn’t bother me.”
Having observed him up close and personal, the staffer says Langford’s demeanor doesn’t define his palpable presence when he’s playing.
“He’s never gonna be like an overly emotional, rah-rah type guy,” the staffer said. “What you see is what you get with his personality. I would call it even-keeled whether we were up 20 or down 20, 10-game losing streak, five-game losing streak – just consistent with his everyday approach.”
When asked to compare himself to somebody, Langford didn’t want to say. Though, he was willing to say his playing style is similar to that of Bradley Beal. He envisions a similar type of career for himself and is confident he could play a role like the veteran Washington Wizards All-Star guard.
So what needs to happen in order for Langford to reach his fullest potential?
“It’s all about just development. That’s what it is these days,” the staffer said. “Obviously spending time with the coaches and understanding what they’re asking of him and him being on the same page, doing what they ask. And it’s gonna come down to just hard work. It takes time to mature at the end of the day. He’s 19 years old and what you don’t know is what you don’t know. So he’s still got a lot to learn.
“But whoever gets him, if they develop him and spend time with him and get him into the gym and work on his shot mechanics and all that type of stuff, there’s a lot that he can do. He’s a smart player that has IQ, which sometimes you just get these uber-talented dudes that are ball dominant, know how to play, know what they’re looking for. Romeo just has a really good feel for what’s going on, who’s open, all that type of stuff. He is a sharp kid.”
Of course, situation and fit also play a crucial part in all of this at the pro level. Will he play off the bench? Will he start? Is there a vision the organization has for him? These are the factors that have great importance and make a difference.
“If he goes to a really, really bad team that needs him to play early, I think he’ll develop and mature and get better quicker than say if he goes to a playoff team that has a secure starting five, starting seven and he’s working his way in,” the staffer said.
“I think it’s very dependent on where he goes, who’s coaching him, what their needs are, what their vision is for him. It’s hard to predict if he’s gonna [make] an immediate impact like in college – be one of the best players, which he was not only in the Big Ten but in the country – obviously the NBA is very different when it comes to that.”
Regardless of who drafts Langford on June 20, the staffer sees a team being pleased with who he is as a person, his habits and his consistency.
“He’ll represent the program the right way,” the staffer said. “So I definitely think they’re gonna get a very talented guy that hasn’t even scratched the surface of his potential. Just because, again, shooting the ball is everything in the NBA and I think he’s just gonna continue to get better and better. His body’s gonna continue to mature and get stronger.
“So I think he is very well-deserving of being projected in the top 14 or whatever it may be. . . I mean, he was a highlight show. He’s not like a power dunker or anything like that. It’s hard to say. He’s not gonna be like Miles Bridges and ripping off the rim, but he’s gonna make some shots in the NBA and do some things in the NBA that some people are gonna say, ‘Wow’ – but they’re gonna be like: ‘Woah, that looks really easy.'”
If the NBA allowed players to turn pro straight out of high school, Langford probably could’ve done so. If the option was there, he would’ve considered it.
But Langford doesn’t think he would’ve been ready and likely would’ve ended up where he did anyway. Plus, in one year with the Hoosiers, he changed and became more of a two-way player in preparation for the next level.
“I mean, I enjoyed myself in college and I felt like I learned a lot,” Langford said.” But that was a good stepping stone to go to the NBA.
“I just feel like my body matured. Obviously, I’ll be able to go against some guys that’s older than me. Instead of going straight to the NBA against guys that already have a name for themselves or are already grown men. But that time in college helped me mature as a young man, physically and mentally.”
That aforementioned season of setbacks at Indiana is a perfect example of a learning experience he wouldn’t have gotten had it not been for choosing the collegiate path.
“Had that little slump of shooting. Sometimes during the season or a game, things wouldn’t go my way. We didn’t win that much,” Langford said. “Hardest part was to keep working hard, see the light at the end of the tunnel and the reason why you wake up every day and work out in the morning. . .
“In high school, the majority of the time everything’s going your way. So now, once you keep going up a level of playing basketball—whether that’s college or NBA—you’re gonna go through the times where something’s not gonna go your way.
“That’s just the time for you to show just how resilient you are. Keep pushing. Don’t give up. Everything’s gonna be good in the long run if you just keep working hard.”
There are always going to be question marks with young players making the leap to the highest level in basketball.
Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s learning curve differs. There’s just something that sticks out about that mild-mannered, polite young man from New Albany, though.
Maybe we should use his own words to paint the picture.
Romeo Langford is built for this.
NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers
Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.
When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.
Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.
Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.
But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.
In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.
This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.
There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.
Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.
He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.
The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.
In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.
Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.
During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.
Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.
Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.
For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.
With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.
When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.
He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.
The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.
When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.
Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.
Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.
Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.
NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee
The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.
Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.
The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.
For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.
But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.
Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.
“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”
On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.
He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.
He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.
Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.
“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”
Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.
He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.
For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.
“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.
“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”
And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.
“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”
NBA Daily: Alex Caruso: The Lakers’ Unsung Hero
The Los Angeles Lakers are two wins from an NBA championship and Alex Caruso is just happy to play his role and contribute.
Alex Caruso has technically been an NBA player for three years now, but this season is his first on a regular NBA contract.
After going undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2016, he began his professional career as with the Philadelphia 76ers in summer league. He managed to make it to training camp with the Oklahoma City Thunder but was eventually cut and acquired by their the G League team, the Blue.
In the summer of 2017, he joined the Los Angeles Lakers for summer league, and he’s stuck with the team ever since. A strong performance in Las Vegas earned him the opportunity to sign a two-way contract with the Lakers for the 2017-18 season, meaning he’d spend most of his time with the South Bay Lakers in the G League.
The Lakers re-signed him to another two-way contract before the 2018-19 season. Restricted to only 45 days with the Lakers under his two-way contracts, Caruso played in a total of 62 games over those two years.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that the Lakers finally signed him to a standard NBA contract worth $5.5 million over two years. And he’s become a key player off the Lakers bench, especially in the playoffs.
Despite not getting much of an early opportunity, Caruso continued to put in the work in anticipation of when his number would finally be called. He always was confident that it would come.
“It’s been the story of my career, no matter what level I’m at, the more time I have on the court, the better I’ve gotten,” Caruso told reporters after the Lakers eliminated the Denver Nuggets. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity, I was two years on two-ways…finally I played well enough to get a contract, and over the course of the year it’s the same thing, anytime I can get out there on the court, I get better.”
Caruso’s stats may not jump off the page, he put up 5.5 points per game this season on only 41.2 percent shooting from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point range, 1.9 assists and 1.9 rebounds, but his impact has gone far beyond statistics.
His playoff numbers are up slightly at 6.8 points on 43.6 percent shooting to go along with 2.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds, but he’s become an invaluable member of the team’s postseason run. The defensive intensity and energy he brings to the court have been instrumental in playoff wins.
In this postseason alone, he’s seen himself matched up defensively with Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and one of the bubble’s breakout stars in Jamal Murray. Each time, he hasn’t backed down from the challenge and has even provided solid man to man defense on each of them.
“Looking and diving into the basketball aspect, series by series, just finding different ways that I know I can be effective, watching past games against opponents, just knowing their tendencies,” Caruso said on a recent media call. “The defense and the effort thing is something I’m always going to have. You can see that in the regular season when I might be more excited on a stop or defensive play on somebody than the rest of the team in game 45 or 50 in the season.”
While his main contributions have been his defense and his hustle, he’s found ways to be effective on the offensive end as well. While not shooting particularly well from three-point range percentage-wise in the playoffs at only 26.9 percent, he’s hit some timely ones during Laker runs to either pull closer to their opponent or to blow the game open.
He’s also been able to get the rim off drives and get himself to the free-throw line, and he’s made strong cuts off the ball to free himself up for easy layups. Playing with the second unit, he’s played a lot of off-ball with Rajon Rondo as the main facilitator, or with LeBron James as the only starter on the floor.
“For me, I think it’s about being aggressive. At any time I can put pressure on the paint whether it’s to get to the rim to finish or to draw fouls or make the defense collapse and get open shots for teammates, that’s really an added benefit for us to have multiple guys out on the court,” Caruso said.
“So whenever I’m out there with Rondo or with LeBron, to not have the sole focus be on one of them to create offense for everybody, it makes us a lot more balanced.”
The trust that Lakers head coach Frank Vogel and the rest of the team have in Caruso has been evident this whole postseason. Perhaps no bigger moment came for him than in Game 6 against the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals when Vogel left him on the court to close out the game.
He’s also become one of the team’s vocal leaders on the court during gameplay, on the sidelines in the huddle and the locker room. On a team with a lot of strong personalities, Caruso’s ascendance as a locker room leader is something that just comes naturally for him. It’s something he’s done his entire basketball career.
“Being vocal has always been easy for me. Outside of this team, I’ve usually been one of the leaders on the team, one of the best players on my team growing up at different levels of basketball. Being vocal is pretty natural for me,” Caruso said.
“I got the trust of my teammates, they understand what I’m talking about. I say what I need to say and it doesn’t fall on deaf ears. I’m really competitive and if there’s something I think needs to be said, I’m going to do it. I leave no stone unturned to get the job done.”
Now in the NBA Finals, as the Lakers seek to win their first championship since 2010 and No. 17 overall, Caruso has reprised his role as a defensive irritant and glue guy who makes winning plays. For the team to win this series, they need to continue to get timely contributions from him.
And with each step of the way, he’s just soaking it all up and is thrilled to be able to have this opportunity alongside some of the NBA’s best.
“It’s a journey I’ve been on my whole life just to get to this point. It’s really cool, I don’t know how to state it other than that,” Caruso said. “It’s just super cool for me to be able to have this experience. To play meaningful minutes and play well, and be on the court with LeBron in big-time moments.”