LOS ANGELES — Bulls guard Alex Caruso scanned the busy practice gym, examining each of his teammates as he repeated the question.
‘‘Who in here would win ‘Squid Game’?’’ Caruso said, referring to the Netflix series, while taking one more glance at a handful of the younger players getting a scrimmage in. ‘‘I know this sounds biased, but it would have to be me. I really think I’m versatile and smart. . . . I’d just figure it out somehow. Yeah, me. I’d just figure it out.’’
Doubt him? Then explain how Caruso, an undrafted free agent in 2016, was cut by the 76ers and Thunder and spent some time in the development league before catching on with the Lakers during the 2017 Summer League.
All he did with the Lakers was go from afterthought to cult hero and earn an NBA championship along the way.
So returning to Los Angeles for back-to-back games against the Clippers, whom the Bulls defeated 100-90 on Sunday, and Lakers, whom they will play Monday, wasn’t only important for Caruso from a basketball standpoint. It also was a reminder of where he came from and what he had learned and gave him a chance to talk with his teammates again about the will to succeed.
‘‘The first day we showed up before camp even started — voluntarily and then into training camp, the preseason, now — I think everybody on this team wants to win and everybody knows what it takes to win,’’ Caruso said. “I’m just trying to help that process, when asked.’’
That’s because all Caruso knows is high effort. He wouldn’t have become a rotation player and a key defensive presence with LeBron James & Co. if he didn’t.
It was no surprise that Caruso was in the starting lineup for the first time this season against the Clippers. After the Bulls were throttled Friday by the Warriors, coach Billy Donovan needed something.
Helping to lock down Clippers forward Paul George was right up Caruso’s alley. It wasn’t a coincidence that George was a shaky 3-for-12 from the field in the first half, while Caruso was a plus-12 and the Bulls had a 54-45 lead at the break. George finished 7-for-25.
The Clippers made a run from late in the third quarter into the early part of the fourth, even grabbing a one-point lead with 10 minutes left. In the end, however, DeMar DeRozan (33 points) and Zach LaVine (29) carried the Bulls to victory.
Caruso, however, knows there are many more steps the Bulls must take to get where they want to this season. Facing the Clippers and Lakers in his personal two-game homecoming were great starting points, but he and the Bulls have to remember their priorities.
‘‘I know . . . there is a lot of attention, a lot of people that care about things off the court that might make a big deal of me returning here, but for me it was always about basketball,’’ Caruso said when asked about his cult-like following. ‘‘I had to try and keep that first because I didn’t have any room for error, didn’t have that room for a misstep or a missed opportunity.
‘‘It just happened to work for me in L.A. And to win a championship with that team, those teammates [and] the coaches, it kind of turned into what it turned into. But for me it was always about basketball first, and I think I kept it like that. I think that’s why I’ve had some success in this game.’’