Mike Bresnahan: The Caruso Effect

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The Alex Caruso Effect began two weeks ago when the Lakers lost a tough one in New York.

Lost amid the headlines that screamed of fading playoff chances and a stunning last-second blocked shot by reserve Mario Hezonja was an under-the-radar stat line by the little-known Caruso.

Twelve points, five steals and three blocked shots were the real numbers. The uncharted stuff was the number of times he was knocked down and the frequency with which he checked to make sure various body parts were still intact, including his nose after an inadvertently vicious hit.

This is how Caruso started making a name for himself with the Lakers. Taking charges and accumulating floor burns.

Fast forward to Sunday, where he stood out for a different reason: A career-high scoring night, including four-for-four from three-point range on a team desperately seeking long-distance accuracy. He became the only Lakers reserve ever with 23 points, six assists and four steals in a game since steals became an official stat in 1973.

He was a main reason for an easy Lakers victory, a rarity this season, in New Orleans.

Of course, the post-game talk was about the dirty work he had gladly done in his second season of a two-way contract with the Lakers and their G-League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.

“He sacrifices his body and by the end of the game he's got a couple bruises and what-not,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton told reporters Sunday. “So when you see him hit pull-up threes, I think as a teammate, you get a little excited.”

Caruso rarely makes news even when he makes an impact.

Last July, his conversion of a four-point play before the halftime buzzer wasn't even the focal point of a highlight at the Vegas Summer League. It was LeBron James' reaction to the play — pretending to fire a gun, reload and fire again a few more times — that made national sports shows as the newest Laker superstar watched from a courtside seat.

Every emotion from James that night was seemingly captured on camera. Four-point plays by undrafted point guards? Not so much.

Caruso, however, is now carving out an identity as a possible back-up at the NBA level.

He didn't have many memorable games last season despite playing 37 with the Lakers in the first year of his two-way contract. His season-high 15 points came in the regular-season finale against the Clippers as both teams sat key players.

This season has had a different feel to it. He was barely used until last month, playing almost exclusively in the G-League, but there was an undeniable uptick in confidence and quality once he started getting minutes with the Lakers.

He scored 16 points in back-to-back games three weeks ago against Toronto and Detroit and shot an impressive 48% from three-point range in March.

He has also shown some athleticism, much to the delight of his teammates. Kyle Kuzma said with a smile that Caruso had “bounce” after the 25-year-old dunked an alley-oop pass from Scott Machado in a recent game.

“Every game for me is a job application,” Caruso told reporters Sunday. “I'm one of the best 350 to 400 players in the world and I want to be in the league.”

The Lakers can make Caruso a restricted free agent this summer by offering him another two-way contract for about $80,000 next season. It does not count toward their salary cap.

Caruso would then have the right to seek NBA-level contracts from other teams and could sign an offer sheet with one of them, which the Lakers would have the right to match.

Whether he stays with the Lakers remains to be seen. Their obvious off-season attention will go toward the big-name free agents, as well as some established veteran shooters to help elevate their woeful team three-point accuracy.

In the meantime, Caruso has five more games to show he belongs in the NBA. Last month was a pretty good indication that he does.