Lonzo Ball's absence opens up opportunity for Alex Caruso to upstage De'Aaron Fox

ByKevin Pelton ESPN logo
Thursday, July 13, 2017

LAS VEGAS -- Before settling on "What Happens Here Stays Here," the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority used the slogan "Only Vegas." That tagline was appropriate for a game Monday night between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings that only could have happened at the Las Vegas Summer League.

The game was billed as a showdown of point guards Lonzo Ball and De'Aaron Fox, the No. 2 and No. 5 overall picks of the 2017 NBA draft who had squared off twice in college. But by the middle of the third quarter, Fox had joined Ball (who sat out with a sore groin) on the bench with ice on his tweaked ankle.

With the big names sidelined, backups Alex Caruso (Lakers) and Frank Mason (Kings) stole the show with impressive performances.

Caruso owned the game's first two and a half quarters with his shooting, playmaking and defense. Undrafted in 2016, Caruso spent training camp with the Oklahoma City Thunder and then played for their G League affiliate, the Blue. He averaged 11.9 points and 5.2 assists per game, shooting 40.1 percent from 3-point range, but had to settle for a role backing up Ball in Vegas.

The start began inauspiciously for Caruso, who fouled Fox 31 seconds into the game. But then Caruso made a 3-pointer. And another 3, interspersing assists in between. By the end of the first quarter, with Caruso already at six points and three assists, it was clear something special was happening.

All of a sudden, Caruso began making the kind of highlight plays we'd expect from Ball. During the second quarter, Caruso dove on the ground to save a loose ball and tipped it ahead to streaking teammate David Nwaba. After halftime, Caruso threw a pass over his head to Travis Wear, then tipped in Wear's miss. And in the fourth quarter, with the Kings mounting a comeback, Caruso threw an alley-oop to Wear to extend the lead to five.

Sacramento rallied behind its backup point guard, second-round pick Frank Mason III. While Caruso is unquestionably unheralded, Mason arguably has more pedigree than Fox and Ball. The Kansas product was, after all, last year's Naismith Men's College Player of the Year. When he was drafted by the Kings No. 34 overall -- somewhat higher than anticipated -- Mason was still the first Naismith winner ever to slip to the second round.

With Fox sitting after a solid effort (he scored 12 points in 20 minutes on 4-of-6 shooting, though he handed out just one assist), Mason took over.

When Mason entered the game in the third quarter, first alongside Fox in place of shooting guard Buddy Hield, Sacramento trailed 68-40. By the time Mason went back to the bench for a quick rest before the stretch run, the Kings had cut the deficit to three points with a 34-9 run. Mason alone scored 18 of the points, en route to 24 for the game on 9-of-13 shooting, along with six assists.

Caruso finished with 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting (4-of-5 on 3s), nine assists, four steals and just two turnovers in his 30 minutes of action. He got help down the stretch from 2016-17 G League MVP Vander Blue, who sandwiched a pair of jumpers around a Caruso finish in the paint to hold off a late charge from Hield. The second-year Sacramento guard made three consecutive 3s in the last two minutes before airballing an attempt in the closing seconds under tight defense from Nwaba.

With a good crowd of Lakers and Kings fans cheering their teams, Monday was as entertaining basketball as is possible at summer league. That doesn't make it predictive. No matter the results of this one game, Fox and Ball are the superior long-term prospects, in no small part because they're both just 19. After four years at Kansas, Mason is 23. So too is Caruso, who spent four years at Texas A&M.

That noted, in overshadowing the stars the role players showed how they can help NBA teams. Caruso's accurate 3-point shooting and strong defense make him ideal for a role as a backup or third point guard. I'd compare him to Philadelphia 76ers point guard T.J. McConnell, albeit with better shooting range and weaker court vision. He has earned an invitation to training camp with a legitimate chance to make a team -- possibly even the Lakers, who have only combo guard Jordan Clarkson on the roster behind Ball.

Meanwhile, Mason could force his way into playing time in Sacramento despite having Fox and newly signed veteran George Hill ahead of him on the depth chart. Mason is a good enough 3-point shooter to play alongside Fox or Hill, and figures to be a more efficient player next season than the Kings' lottery pick.

So Las Vegas' new slogan doesn't necessarily have to be accurate in this case. What Caruso and Mason accomplished in Vegas doesn't have to stay here.

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