It wasn’t as though a young Alex Caruso was biking up to the nearest outdoor court in College Station, Texas, putting a few garbage cans together and working on running through screens.
He didn’t graduate from Texas A&M as its all-time assist leader with the idea of making it to the NBA as a pick-and-roll specialist — on the defensive end.
Those weren’t exactly among Caruso’s dreams back then.
Then again, dreams come with a price. As Caruso found out quickly, that price involved changing paths and taking a survival-mode approach.
‘‘It’s funny that you asked me that because we were just doing dribble-handoff drills [Thursday] and working on guards busting through screens and not getting screened, and one of the assistants brought me over and said, ‘You do such a great job of getting through screens and not getting screened,’ ’’ Caruso said when asked about his reputation as an on-the-ball defender and screen-buster. ‘‘And I told him, ‘Well, for three years, that’s all I was allowed to do.’ ’’
After going undrafted in 2016, Caruso bounced around from the 76ers to Oklahoma City of the G-League. The Lakers gave him a look in the Summer League in 2017 and were so impressed that they signed him to a two-way contract.
But life on a two-way, even with the Lakers, was far from glamorous. Who knew that would lead to Caruso’s origin story?
‘‘When I was on a two-way, fighting for a spot and a little bit that first year trying to earn my role in L.A., I had a limited role on offense,’’ Caruso said. ‘‘I was more of a spacer, screener, ball-mover, but I knew I was out there to play defense and I knew that got me playing time. So I was just trying to get on the court and did what I could to get out there, and a lot of that was the defensive side of the ball. And the more reps you get, the better you get at it. And I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now.’’
And, as this offseason showed, getting paid for it. The Bulls gave Caruso, a 6-4 combo guard, a four-year, $37 million deal — but not just because of his defensive prowess. Caruso brings toughness to a team that was badly in need of it.
‘‘I love the fact that he’s a verbal player,’’ coach Billy Donovan said. ‘‘He’s always talking, trying to get guys in the right spot and communicating on both ends of the floor. A guy that I think does a lot of little things, brings a lot of toughness to the table.’’
Donovan hopes that mentality is contagious.
Not that anyone expects players such as Zach LaVine and Coby White to exert the energy necessary to run through every screen thrown in their path. That’s not realistic.
But Donovan hopes his other guards understand it’s not only Caruso’s job to come in and be a high-energy defensive tough guy. It can start with him, but others have to do it, too.
‘‘It can’t be, ‘Hey, listen, that’s his job; you don’t have to worry about it,’ ’’ Donovan said. ‘‘I don’t think you have any chance to be any good defensively if you’ve got one guy trying to guard everybody. We’re gonna have to have all of our perimeter guys get into the ball and try to fight over screens and have some physicality at the point of attack.’’
That put a smile on Caruso’s face.
‘‘I think the things I’m good at, the team needs and the team can use,’’ he said. ‘‘I think that’s part of the reason they brought me here. Just trying to do my best to rub off on the other guys.’’