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The Longtime Come-up of the Lakers’ Alex Caruso

It’s been a big summer for the 25-year-old. You may remember Caruso from a viral (Photoshopped) image, but he also inked his first real NBA contract in July. Now he’s heading into his first full-time season—and getting ready for the attention that comes with it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This offseason, Alex Caruso’s phone has blown up twice. The first time was expected: Caruso, who spent the last two seasons as a two-way player for the Lakers, agreed to a two-year, $5.5 million deal with the team on July 6, and he exchanged a flurry of texts with his group of hometown friends back in Texas to celebrate. The second time, though, he didn’t see coming.

You’ve probably seen the images by now—the ones of a shirtless Caruso working out at the Lakers gym in August. Except in one of the pictures, there’s about 30 percent more Caruso than you’re used to seeing.

People flooded Caruso’s Twitter mentions with the image, and he began to get texts from people who hadn’t seen him in months. “Yo, is that real? What have you been doing?” they asked. He laughs about it now. To be clear, he has been spending several hours a day in the Lakers facility lifting weights, practicing in the gym, and getting ready for his first full-time NBA season. And he’s gotten fairly ripped. But the results weren’t quite as dramatic as the image suggested. “It was funny,” Caurso told me over the phone this week. “I mean, every reply was this picture of this super-buff defensive end in the NFL that looks like me. … [It’s] like I’m Von Miller.”

The image, of course, was Photoshopped, a doctored version of a photo the Lakers’ official Twitter account posted in mid-August. But Caruso had a feeling there would be something coming his way in the mail because of it. Sure enough, about a week and a half after the picture went viral, a league drug-test request arrived in the mail. Caruso posted about it on his Instagram. “They say it’s random,” Caruso said about the NBA’s drug testing system, “but I don’t know.”

The original picture of Caruso working out had been pretty impressive itself, but the hilarity of the sensationalized image, plus the timing of the drug test, only helped grow the Legend of Caruso. Various news outlets wrote about the incident, the images circulated widely around the internet, and the Lakers’ recently released Caruso highlight video only ramped up the attention around him even more.

It’s been quite the come-up for Caruso, whose attempt to carve out a place for himself in the NBA began on the Thunder’s G-League team in 2016 after going undrafted (“Nobody knew who I was,” Caruso says); continued in 2017 when, after stepping in for an injured Lonzo Ball on the Lakers’ summer league team and showing flashes, the team signed the 25-year-old to a two way-contract—the first player to ever be signed to the Lakers on such a deal; and has now finally gotten him a real deal.

“Even though the two-way is technically an NBA contract, I count this as my first one,” Caruso says. “I’m not gonna lie and say I wasn’t super hyped ... Everybody who goes undrafted, that’s the plan they say out loud, but you never know if it will happen.”

After spending two seasons shuttling back and forth between G-League and NBA responsibilities on commercial flights, keeping up with two sets of playbooks and dealing with general uncertainty about where he would be, Caruso will now get some stability—even if that comes with some extra attention.

Caruso first started getting recognized two summers ago. He was just a two-way player on the Lakers at that point, so he wasn’t getting mobbed, but slowly, his everyday tasks began turning into small instances of fame. He got noticed at the car wash once. Another day, while eating at Chipotle, a group of teenagers pointed him out. “They usually ask me, ‘Hey, you’re Caruso, right?’” Caruso told me last year at the South Bay Lakers Media Day, where the only people in attendance were a handful of media members, and the guys on the team were taking pictures with generic Lakers jerseys that said “Player” on the back because the G-League uniforms had yet to come in.

This summer, after inking his deal and experiencing his five minutes of fame on the internet, the recognition has reached a new level. He’s no LeBron James, but now Lakers fans come up to him at restaurants and bowling alleys already knowing who he is. Despite his 6-foot-5 frame, though, Caruso isn’t used to standing out. After all, his appearance—a white guy with thinning hair and a distinct mustache—doesn’t exactly signal “NBA player.” “He’d be the first one to tell you that he’s a goofy-looking dude,” Rusty Seger, one of Caruso’s high school coaches, says. “That’s the great thing about Alex. He’ll make you doubt that he can do it, and then go do it to you.”

That’s part of the reason that the Lakers’ passionate fan base—whom Caruso has compared to the cult-like group at Texas A&M, his alma mater—has gravitated to him. And the fact that he has been able to play well enough to stick around makes him the closest thing to a homegrown player the Lakers have left—aside from Kyle Kuzma—after signing LeBron and giving up the rest of their draft picks for Anthony Davis.

Caruso had one of his best on-court moments back in April, in a game against the Warriors. When a missed Rajon Rondo 3-pointer careened off the rim, Caruso flew into the paint, picked the ball out of mid-air, and slammed it into the basket in one motion. Everyone, especially LeBron, gawked at the put-back dunk. Caruso didn’t. Even though he had grown up using a chair in his driveway to try and dunk when he was in second grade, and watched clip after clip of former NBA stars dunking on YouTube, dreaming of the day he’d be able to do it, he barely reacted. As he ran back on the defense, the camera showed him slapping his hand as if he did something wrong. “I hadn’t made a shot up until that point,” he said postgame. “So I was a little frustrated.”

As a kid, dunking had been his version of “making it,” but by that point, it was a means to a different end: making it onto an NBA team. That highlight certainly helped his case, but so did his next game, where he recorded 32 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists against the Clippers. Over the final stretch of last season, Caruso transitioned from a mere folk-hero figure with an endearing story to someone who could actually help the Lakers in both the present and the future.

Now, with a contract in hand, the goalposts for his success have shifted. With his off-the-ball movement, high-effort level on defense, and his ball-handling and transition abilities, he was an easy plug-and-play guy last season. But now if his shot improves (he says he’s been working on it a lot this summer), it wouldn’t be out of the question to see him get some starting time alongside LeBron and Davis. All while he’s just three years removed from going undrafted.

As a fully formed member of this team, his exposure will only get bigger—this summer was only a preview. But when hearing Caruso talk about his elevated online platform (he notes his follower counts on social media have skyrocketed), a disconnect emerges: Caruso’s entire persona has always revolved around being “low key” as he would say, and blending in more than standing out. He runs through a list of his interests to prove it: He’s started watching Black Mirror on Netflix (“That’s pretty trippy stuff”); he plays Xbox regularly; he likes to go to the beach when the weather’s nice; and he’s got a fantasy football team, too.

“I’m a normal guy, I go to the grocery store,” Caruso says, as if to underline his point. “That’s my favorite part about this whole thing for me. I get to continue being the normal person that I am.” He pauses proudly. “It’s just that now I get to play basketball for the Lakers, too.”