Alex Caruso is a mongrel. In the best way possible. On a possession-to-possession basis, he provides an endless supply of sometimes subtle, sometimes SportsCenter top-10 caliber defensive plays.
We know Caruso is one of the elite point-of-attack defenders in the entire NBA, but of the many amazing things he does, his ability to force defenders into setting illegal screens has stood out among the pack.
Through 24 games, Caruso has received 16 illegal screen calls in his favor, that’s two every three games. The NBA doesn’t track this data (they should), but it certainly feels like Caruso would top the leaderboards.
“If I get over a screen, feel a little contact and hear a whistle, more times than not, it’s going to be,” Caruso told CHGO.
Here’s how he does it.
“I’m just trying to run the same route as him”
Chasing Stephen Curry around the court has been one of the hardest things to do in basketball over the past decade. There are no breaks. No chance to catch your breath, let alone blink, or he’s shooting an open three.
Aside from his quick trigger and ungodly accuracy, Curry has been so productive as an off-ball shooter because of the way he uses screens.
So how do you guard it?
“It’s just trying to run the same route as him,” Caruso said. “Especially off ball. When the guy has the ball, it’s more about getting into the ball and being physical. But when it’s off the ball, it’s about trying to run the same route. So if he’s running the corner route, you run a corner right behind him. And from there, usually the screener is screening a space that the offensive guy is not going on.”
Make sure to watch this clip with the volume on to hear Caruso walk through the play in real time:
If Curry can rub shoulders with the screener, he has an opening. But if Caruso runs the same route as Curry, the screener can’t do his job without also screening Curry.
“If you run the same route as the offensive guy, he’s got to screen a different spot than where he’s looking to screen,” Caruso said. “But a lot of times, stepping into that space, I’m so close, I’m attached the guy running the same route as him. That’s when they’re moving or sticking their leg out.”
“It’s not even so much me trying to time it to get an illegal screen, it’s me trying to time it to not get screened”
Guarding ball screens is a different story. Whereas chasing shooters requires you to run the same route to avoid getting screened, on the ball, he can often take advantage of over-eager screeners.
Listen to Caruso explain how he drew an illegal screen call on Grant Williams:
Setting hard screens to create space is a huge part of the game for big men. If they can give their star player a step, that’s all he needs for a two-on-one advantage.
“Coaches wind players on the other team, even on our team, you wind guys up to set screens and be physical, that’s how you get physicality into the game,” Caruso said. “So if I do my best to get out of the way of the screen, they’re all amped up, like, ‘I gotta screen, like this is what we’re coached to do. I’ve got to be physical.’ Especially for the best players on the other team who I’m usually guarding. “
That’s where Caruso strikes.
“Trying to get them open, they tend to stick a leg out, get a little too physical, lean into it,” he continued. “That’s where I can take advantage of it, by closing the gap and being in a position that’s hard to screen.”
‘Just trying to eliminate the gap’
Whether it’s intentional or not, Caruso has mastered the art of coaxing screeners to move right as the ball handler is getting ready to take off.
By hopping forward right as the screener is getting set, he presses into the guard and forces the screener to stick out a limb in order to create contact on the screen.
Listen to Caruso:
“Just trying to take up the space,” Caruso said. “A lot of times there’s space between screens and the ball handler coming off the screen. For me, it’s just trying to manipulate whatever advantage I can get. Usually there’s an advantage whether I’m already into the ball or I have to make up space.”
I went into this interview thinking this was some of Caruso’s dark magic, but it turns out, it’s actually about avoiding the screen all together.
“It’s not something that I go into trying to do,” he said. “I think it’s more of a byproduct of me just competing through possessions and trying to win little spots like we talk about if you want to be a good team. Winning box outs, winning one-on-one plays, and for me, point of attack, getting over screens and guarding the best players. The better I do that, the better we have a chance of getting a stop.”
It’s no accident that Caruso is as good as he is defensively. He understands movement and tendencies and has learned how to exploit even the smallest mistake.