LOS ANGELES – Perhaps no team is more embroiled in NBA trade rumors than the Chicago Bulls, but their hottest commodity probably isn’t who you think.
Though the team’s roster has three former All-Stars who have averaged around 25 points or more at various points in their careers, it’s Alex Caruso, a guy who went undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2016 and had to claw his way into the league.
The 29-year-old Caruso has since made a name for himself as a difference-maker, the kind of hard-nosed defender who makes general managers salivate. He works around the fringes of box scores, defecting passes and altering shots, quietly maneuvering games with his outsized IQ like a puppet master pulling strings.
Multiple teams would love to acquire him and his relatively bargain salary of $9.5 million ahead of the Feb. 8 trade deadline, but the Bulls reportedly aren’t interested in engaging in talks – unless it’s at a steep price.
None of this is lost on Caruso, who not too long ago didn’t know if he’d have any staying power in the NBA.
“Yeah, it’s really cool,” Caruso told FOX Sports after the Bulls’ loss to the Lakers on Thursday. “It’s a testament to the journey and the work I’ve put in. I kept chasing improvement, whatever aspect of the game it was. Taking coaching. Putting my ego and pride aside. Looking in the mirror and saying, ‘What can I actually get better at?’ And then putting my head down and going to work.”
While the Bulls were constructed around the offensive talent of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Lonzo Ball, behind Caruso they finished with the fifth-best defensive rating last season. Caruso was named to the All-Defensive first team, and led all guards in defensive LEBRON, a metric that measures defensive impact.
This summer, Caruso poured himself into becoming more of a threat on the offensive end to help take the load off of the team’s stars. He’s currently averaging career-highs in points (10.1), field-goal percentage (49.1%), 3-point percentage (41.5 %) and blocks (1.0) for the Bulls, who are ninth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 21-25.
Caruso is viewed as the type of player who could help a team become a true contender. And among the teams reportedly interested in acquiring him are the Milwaukee Bucks and the Lakers, whom he won a championship with in 2020.
Caruso, who played four seasons with the Lakers from 2017 to 2021, wove gold out of a two-way contract with the team, eventually becoming a crucial part of their title run and a fan favorite who regularly drew MVP chants. But Caruso left the Lakers in free agency after the Bulls offered him a four-year, $37 million deal, more than what the Lakers were willing to pay ($21 million over three years), a decision the Lakers would clearly come to regret.
Caruso has only further blossomed in Chicago. But when asked if he has any “what ifs” about leaving the Lakers, he didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah, definitely,” Caruso told FOX Sports. “Just because of how well I played with them when I was here. I know how I supported them. And I’ve gotten better. I was expecting myself to get better. It’s actually what had to move me on. I kept getting better and eventually I was at a point where I couldn’t stay here.
“I definitely have always thought about it because those guys [LeBron James and Anthony Davis] are my brothers. We’ve been through a lot together. Always good seeing them. Every now and then you think about what could’ve been.”
While Caruso has shined individually this season, his star-studded Bulls team has yet again underperformed amid multiple injuries. (Ball hasn’t played since Jan. 2022 because of knee surgeries, LaVine has only played in 25 games this season and Torrey Craig just 27.) In a league that has a short attention span, that means the Bulls have been nose-diving into the rumor mill, with questions over whether the front office will decide to blow it all up or stay the course.
So, the futures of Caruso, LaVine, DeRozan and their teammates have been mired in uncertainty, something they’ve supported each other through all season.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Caruso told FOX Sports. “You have to lean on your guys and block out the noise because it’s such a grind of a season.”
Meanwhile, Caruso is doing what he has always done – focus on the work.
There was the time when the 6-foot-5 Caruso shut down the nearly 7-foot Kevin Durant over the fourth quarter and overtime of a game against Phoenix in November, holding him to just four points over those periods. Durant went on to call Caruso “a phenomenal player.”
Or the time when Caruso stripped the ball from Pascal Siakam with seconds to go in overtime in a game against Toronto in October, and then made a game-winning 3-pointer on the other end.
“He’s one-of-a-kind,” DeRozan said of Caruso. “One of our favorite teammates. One of the toughest, smartest competitors that you can have on your team.”
Added Bulls coach Billy Donovan: “[He’s] solely all about winning. That’s all he cares about is winning. And he’s willing to do a lot of things that don’t show up in the stat sheet. He does a lot of things that you can’t measure. He’s a winning player. He’s an impactful player.”
Caruso is glad that he has gone from being a G League player into someone who has earned the respect of everyone he has played alongside.
But he acknowledged that he still feels underrated in a sense, especially when it comes to being taken seriously as a contender for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
“Yeah, maybe,” Caruso told FOX Sports when asked if he doesn’t get the proper consideration. “There’s usually a little bit of politics with the league and the media of how that is routed and who gets to win that. But it’s a prestigious award. It’s not given out to just anybody. You’ve got to earn it. For a guard to earn it, you’ve got to do a lot because normally it’s predominately a big man award, at least for the most part. Marcus Smart got it a couple of years ago and broke the streak.
“But maybe that’s in the cards eventually. That’s something I put on the checklist to try to accomplish. I may never get it. I may always just keep chasing it. But that’s kind of what I do — just keep chasing.”
It’s an approach that has worked for Caruso.
It got him into the league. It put him on the map. And now, it’s helping him thrive amid all the noise.
“I’ve found a love and a passion for just working,” he said.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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