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Alex Caruso has made big strides over a year, all the way to Lakers’ starting point guard

When Alex Caruso thinks back on the past year of his life, he appreciates the journey he’s taken.

“To see how far I’ve come in a year has just been really special,” Caruso said. “I’m really humbled to be in this position and just really excited for the future.”

Caruso remained with the Lakers for their trip to Utah with injuries putting both point-guard options in jeopardy. Brandon Ingram, who has played backup point at times this season, is out for Tuesday’s game against the Jazz. Starting point guard Lonzo Ball, who has a left knee bruise, is doubtful but did travel with the team to Utah.

Their injuries provided an opportunity for Caruso on Sunday that he hadn’t had before — with both players out, Caruso started.

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“It felt the same, it’s still basketball,” Caruso said. “Just I play the very first minutes of the game instead of coming in at the three-minute mark. Just really wish we could have won the game so I could be 1-0 in my starter’s career.”

Caruso didn’t get drafted out of college in 2016. He spent some time last season in the developmental league in Oklahoma City, close to his hometown of College Station, Texas. He made the most of an invitation to the Lakers’ summer league team, contributing to a championship while Ball was held out because of injuries.

Caruso became a fan favorite in the summer league, and also caught the Lakers’ eyes. They signed him to a two-way contract, a deal that allowed Caruso to be with the Lakers for a limited number of days and their developmental affiliate, the South Bay Lakers, for the rest of his time. The Los Angeles Lakers used Caruso for all of his allotted 45 days and then brought him back once the G-League season ended.

Still, Caruso was vacillating between the two teams. He was on his way to take a red-eye flight back to Oklahoma to join the South Bay Lakers after Friday’s NBA game against the Milwaukee Bucks when Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka called to stop him.

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“Not many people get to experience what I’ve gotten to experience in a year’s time,” Caruso said. “A year ago, I was done. I’d just lost a playoff game in the G-League after playing a full season. Free agent not knowing what I was doing.”

Friends become foes

While the rest of his team flew to Salt Lake City, Lakers rookie guard Josh Hart was on a private plane headed to San Antonio.

Hart spent four years at Villanova and won a championship with the Wildcats. So he didn’t want to miss their return to the men’s basketball national championship game. They’ll be facing Michigan, the alma mater of Pelinka. He also went to the game, with his 1989 championship ring in tow.

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For Hart, the side trip fit between work responsibilities. He went to the Lakers’ facility Monday morning to lift weights and get some shooting in. The Lakers didn’t have an official practice before flying to Utah. Hart is expected to be back with the team by Tuesday morning’s shootaround.

Spoiler alert

With a handful of games left, the Western Conference playoff race is tight. While that doesn’t impact the Lakers, who were eliminated from playoff contention last week, it does impact all of their remaining opponents. It gives the Lakers the opportunity to spoil another team’s playoff situation.

They’ll face the Utah Jazz twice, currently the sixth seed in the west. The Jazz have won seven of their last 10 games, including their last two. Heading into Monday’s games, they were only one game behind the San Antonio Spurs, who are the fourth seed.

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The Lakers also will play the Spurs, who were 45-32 as of Monday afternoon. San Antonio is only three games ahead of the ninth place Denver Nuggets.

The Timberwolves, who the Lakers will play Friday, are a game-and-a-half from being knocked out of playoff contention. And at 41-36, the Clippers, who play host to the Lakers in their season finale, are two games out of the playoffs.

The only team facing the Lakers with nothing on the line is Houston. The Rockets already have clinched home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They’ll just be waiting to learn the identity of their first-round opponent.

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tania.ganguli@latimes.com

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli


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