Around this time last year, Jahlil Okafor had just led Duke to the national championship and was on the verge of being selected with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He would go on to join the Philadelphia 76ers, emerging as a potential franchise cornerstone and then becoming the team’s go-to option on offense once the 2015-16 NBA season started.
These days, Okafor has seen his name surface in trade rumors, he’s been on the receiving end of criticism, he’s rehabbing his right knee after undergoing surgery for a small meniscus tear and Philadelphia’s 10-72 record makes this by far the least successful basketball season of his life.
The 20-year-old has certainly seen better days.
However, Okafor had an effective rookie campaign despite Philadelphia’s struggles. He averaged 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 assists (while shooting 50.8 percent from the field). These are very similar to his college numbers – 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 assists (while shooting 66.4 percent from the field) – which were often praised. And it’s important to remember that Okafor was largely drafted so high because of his potential, which remains largely untapped given his age and development.
Still, Okafor ranked second among all rookies in points per game, third among rookies in rebounds per game and fourth among rookies in blocks per game. It’s also worth noting that Okafor was playing some of his best basketball right before his injury, averaging 20.3 points per game on 63.4 percent from the field in the six games after the All-Star break.
He made the All-Rookie First Team and showed glimpses of brilliance throughout the season, reminding everyone why he was the top high school recruit in the nation just two years back and a top-three pick 12 months ago.
“I think I learned a ton – about myself, about the NBA and just how everything works,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “I think I continue to learn every day, but I definitely learned a lot throughout this year.
“Now, I’m just focused on rehabbing. I had the surgery on my knee about 12 weeks ago and the physicians have basically just told me take my time and take it slow. My knee feels really good, but the people in my circle and the Sixers are just trying to make sure that I don’t try to rush back. I’m confident though because my knee feels good.”
Without question, dealing with the 72 losses was the hardest part of this season for Okafor. He had 18 times as many losses during his rookie campaign as he did during his lone collegiate season at Duke, so it was certainly an adjustment for him.
“I think anybody who is a top pick knows they’re going to go to a losing team; the reason any team gets a top pick is because they didn’t do so well the year before,” Okafor said. “So when I got picked up by the Sixers, I talked to Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) about what I should expect so it wasn’t anything I was shocked about. Of course I thought we’d do better than we did, but I wasn’t expecting to make the playoffs or anything like that.”
Losing 72 games is obviously hard for any competitor, but even more so for someone who hasn’t really lost much throughout their life. That describes Okafor, and the people who are close to the big man said that he had to learn how to deal with that level of failure since the scoreboard had typically been his friend prior to being drafted.
“He’s been a winner his entire life,” Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer said. “In third grade, he won the AAU national championship; his AAU teams were always one of the best. In high school, he won a state championship. In college, he goes 35-4 and was the leading scorer on our national championship team as a freshman. He has three gold medals. He’s a guy who isn’t used to losing. And, obviously, losing isn’t fun. So he had to deal with losing more games this year than he had lost in his entire life. A lot of players don’t go through that to that magnitude. I thought he did a good job of staying positive and controlling what he could control.”
“He’s won at every level, whether it’s high school or AAU or college or USA Basketball, so I think it was a different year for him,” said close friend (and former Duke teammate) Quinn Cook, who said he speaks to Okafor daily. “But he’s always positive. He’s a people person, who was always with his teammates; he has a great relationship with his teammates there in Philadelphia. And I know his mindset was on winning. It wasn’t about scoring or making himself look good, he was always most concerned about winning. Whenever they would get a win, he’d be extremely happy. Then, if they would lose, he’d try to remain positive and look for bright spots.”
There were times when Okafor let his frustration get the best of him, such as when he was involved in an altercation with a heckler (which resulted in a two-game suspension levied by the Sixers).
Two silver linings that Okafor tried to focus on throughout the tough season were the supportive fans and the fact that he was getting the opportunity to develop his game by playing big minutes.
“Being with the Sixers is special because there’s such a passionate fan base here,” Okafor said. “That was a big positive for me this year, and it motivated me because I want to do well for the city. It’s great to walk around Philly and see that everyone is so passionate. They really want me to do well, and that means a lot. On top of that, with us being so young, I was able to play a lot of minutes and develop a lot of different things. Some rookies don’t get the opportunity that I got on the floor. Those were the biggest positives for me.”
Another positive Okafor pointed out was the fact that the team became a close-knit group. As Cook mentioned, Okafor was constantly around his teammates and enjoyed their company off the court. Okafor felt that the team progressively jelled as the season moved on too.
“I think [our chemistry] got better every day,” Okafor said. “Obviously we had some bad games, but we also had some really good games. We’re all really good friends off of the floor, so that makes it easier when you’re trying to figure things out on the floor. Ish Smith came in December and it was great to jell with him. He’s a very good point guard and it was a lot of fun when he joined the team.
“Everyone was close though. It was a fun season. Yes, we were losing, but we’re a bunch of young guys who are living our dream so we still had fun.”
Not so fun was the slew of criticism that Okafor faced throughout the year. Some understandably stemmed from his off-court actions and he certainly can’t let hecklers or instigators get under his skin and give them the reaction they so desperately want. Even though Okafor turned only 20 years old in December, he is the face of a franchise and must carry himself that way. With that said, a lot of the criticism seemed to be in reaction to the Sixers’ record (which doesn’t fall solely on Okafor, by any means) or based on how his fellow rookies were performing. But those kind of doubters come with being an up-and-coming player in the NBA, which is something he is learning.
“As I’m watching these playoffs, I’m just realizing that winning cures everything,” Okafor said. “Obviously, we lost a lot, so with that being said, I’m going to be criticized a lot. But, look, I watched Golden State lose a few games and I saw some fans and reporters criticizing Steph Curry. LeBron James loses and then he gets criticized a lot. When you lose, you get criticized. And I’m obviously nowhere near as good as those guys, so I wouldn’t expect any less criticism for me.”
Cook heard the criticism of his friend, and was perhaps even more annoyed by it than Okafor.
“It bothers me,” Cook said. “I know he sees what people are saying about him and he knows what’s going on, but he’s always positive. He doesn’t let those things affect him. He’s just staying positive and being a professional about everything.”
Okafor finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting behind Karl-Anthony Towns (who received every first-place vote), Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic and Devin Booker. While some players may have taken this as a slight and used it as motivation, Okafor said that he doesn’t need any extra fuel for his fire and actually said he sees where the panel was coming from with their votes.
“I understood it. We were losing a lot and I didn’t play the last 23 games, so it was understandable,” Okafor said of the Rookie of the Year voting. “I was fortunate to make the All-Rookie First Team, so that was good for me and for Philadelphia. I know people in the city were excited. I’ve always been someone who is self-motivated though [so I don’t need to use that]. Of course there’s been some people who want to doubt and criticize me. Either way, I’m just going to work hard every day and get better.”
The first thing that the aforementioned critics typically bring up about Okafor is his defense. For some time, that has been the knock on Jahlil’s game and understandably so since it’s his biggest weakness. He has always been a terrific offensive player who is skilled beyond his years when it comes to post moves and footwork, but he didn’t defend at a high level. At Duke, the coaching staff had him carry so much of the offensive load that he wasn’t asked to do very much on the other end (to conserve his energy), so they built a strong defense around him.
Now, he is being asked to do much more defensively and must step up to the challenge. He knows this, but also believes he made strides on the defensive end throughout his rookie campaign.
“I think I’ve learned a lot; I’m getting used to defending NBA big men,” Okafor said. “I’m getting used to defending the pick-and-roll when you’re playing against a really good point guard and a really good big man. The coaches have told me that they’re happy with the way that I’m developing and I am as well.”
Many high-level players entered the league as sub-par defenders and later significantly improved once they put in the time and effort (and took advantage of NBA resources), and Okafor has the potential to do the same.
Okafor said that the toughest players to match-up against throughout his first NBA season were Pau Gasol (who was one of his favorite players growing up), DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan. Scheyer, who watched Okafor closely throughout the season, noticed significant defensive progress from his former player.
“He’s such a gifted scorer naturally, but I thought he made great strides on the defensive end,” Coach Scheyer said. “I saw consistent effort on that end, and that’s something that people tried to pick on about him. I thought defensively he improved throughout the year, with his ball-screen defense, help-side defense and all that. … He loves the work. He wants to develop, and he loves the game so he’s always trying to get better. He’s constantly doing what’s necessary to take that next step in his game.”
Cook saw significant development from Okafor over the last year as well.
“He looked very athletic to me this year,” Cook said. “People don’t give him credit for his athleticism, but I thought he was in great shape – especially for a 19-year-old who’s the face of the franchise and playing an NBA schedule for the first time. He handled that very well. His free throw shooting got way better too. I think he was able to show his outside touch a little bit more as well. I think at Duke, he didn’t really get the chance to show his elbow moves or mid-range jumper because it was just so easy for him to score backing down at the basket. I think he showed some more of those things this year. Most importantly, I think he showed he can carry a franchise.”
Cook is right about Okafor showing his elbow moves. In fact, Okafor finished the season ranked fifth among players averaging 30 or more minutes in points per game from the elbows – trailing only Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin and Chris Bosh. He also had the seventh-best point percentage from the elbows among qualified players – behind only Darren Collison, Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Durant, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder and Serge Ibaka. It’s clear that Okafor’s offensive arsenal, which already included a vast array of post moves, is continuing to expand.
Sometimes, it can be difficult for rookies to earn the respect of NBA veterans, but Okafor’s ability to score the basketball warranted double teams and made life hard for opposing players.
“I only played him once, but he is always in attack mode,” Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert said of Okafor. “Even if you block him twice, you know he is coming back at you.”
“Offensively, I just thought he kept getting better and better,” Coach Scheyer added. “He had games where he was very efficient, even though he was being double-teamed as a rookie. The double-teams say a lot about how talented he is as an offensive player.”
Next year, it may be tougher for defenders to double-team him since the team will add reinforcements in the coming months. New general manager Bryan Colangelo is hoping to accelerate the rebuilding process, which means the Sixers could be active in free agency. Philly also used the No. 1 overall pick in the draft on Ben Simmons, and seems poised to get recent lottery picks Joel Embiid and Dario Saric on the floor for the first time.
As far as Embiid’s progress goes, Okafor believes he’ll be ready to play next year.
“He looks hungry and motivated,” Okafor said of Embiid. “He’s obviously been criticized for some stuff that happened to him that he can’t control. I don’t like the criticism. But I see that he’s working extremely hard and, as far as I can tell, he’s ready to play next season.”
Which brings us to the trade rumors that have been making headlines. Because the Sixers have so much talent in their frontcourt and numerous holes elsewhere, trade speculation has been rampant.
Rumors have indicated that the Sixers have explored trading Okafor, with the Boston Celtics often being mentioned as a possible suitor. The two teams reportedly discussed a potential Okafor deal at the deadline and talks could resurface at some point this summer, especially since Boston has so many attractive assets that could entice the Sixers. Nerlens Noel has also been mentioned as a possible trade chip – perhaps because the two big men haven’t played very well when they’ve shared the court. Colangelo recently admitted that trade talks with other teams have taken place and that the centers have been discussed.
“I would just simply tell you that there’s been conversations and there’s been a lot of interest expressed in some of the players that we have, but nothing that’s made enough sense to pull the trigger on,” Colangelo told NBA.com. “We’ve talked about the five position in particular.”
When asked about the trade rumors, Okafor stated that he can’t tune them out completely. In this day and age, information spreads quickly and it’s very hard to ignore these things.
“Well, of course you hear it,” Okafor said of trade rumors. “You hear it because of people texting you and asking you and all of that stuff. There were trade rumors involving me throughout the season. Then, at the All-Star break, there were some more trade rumors. So I talked to my head coach, Brett Brown, and he just told me that as long as I’m in the NBA, that’s going to be part of my life. I try to block it out, but being an NBA player, it’s just something you have to deal with.”
Okafor spent this past season learning what it’s like to be an NBA player, experiencing both the good and the bad. His rookie season wasn’t always easy or enjoyable, but there were plenty of lessons to take away from the campaign, which should help Okafor and the Sixers in the long run.
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.”