Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Nov. 14, 2022.
“You can’t be small and miss 3s,” Jose Alvarado said to himself. The 6-foot-nothing guard had biffed a couple consecutively in a shooting drill with the Birmingham Squadron, the New Orleans Pelicans’ G League affiliate, and this was simply unacceptable.
“It’s hilarious,” Squadron coach T.J. Saint said. “But he’s really intense. It’s serious. He’s serious about it.”
Saint, an assistant coach on last year’s staff, recalled Alvarado peppering him and former coach Ryan Pannone with questions during timeouts and coaching up his teammates in huddles. On the court during warmups on the second night of a back-to-back, Alvarado approached Saint, calling himself out for a shaky performance in the previous game.
“I’ll never forget this,” Saint said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, keep it real with me: If I keep playing like that, what do you think next year?'”
Alvarado was on a two-way contract, which is worth half of the NBA rookie minimum salary and limited him to a maximum of 50 games with New Orleans. He suggested that, if he did not sharpen up, the best he could hope for would be an Exhibit 10, a training-camp deal that can be converted to a two-way. Saint told Alvarado that he needed to play better, but there was lots of season left.
Was there ever: Alvarado had about 40 minutes of garbage time on his Pelicans resume when he arrived in Birmingham. When his rookie season was over, he’d played more games in the NBA playoffs than in the G League. He had also signed a four-year contract with New Orleans and established himself as both a rotation player and a cult hero.
Alvarado’s signature move, “Grand Theft Alvarado,” paired irresistibly well with his story. The man snuck up on everybody.
And yes, Saint has a GTA anecdote: “It was on a free throw. He was standing on the perimeter. Usually I’m telling the guys to get back in transition. And he’s in the corner and I’m like, ‘Jose! Get back!’ And he just puts his finger up to his lips and — shhh — shushes me.
“And then he just tries to steal from behind and gets it. It’s hilarious. It’s awesome. And I’m like, ‘Well, what do I know as a coach? Good job, Jose!'”
For someone who is known for a stealthy maneuver, Alvarado is unsubtle. He changes games the way a stick of dynamite alters architecture. On Saturday the Pelicans were headed toward a regrettable, forgettable loss to the Houston Rockets, down by eight points early in the fourth quarter. Then Alvarado went bananas, the Smoothie King Center crowd followed suit and New Orleans ended the game on a 29-8 run. In the fourth quarter alone, he had 12 points, four assists, three steals and two rebounds.
There was a bit of a kerfuffle after Alvarado pulled off the GTA with 18 seconds on the clock and the Pelicans up by 11; as a result, both he and the Rockets’ Kevin Porter Jr. were ejected. That steal was not nearly as rude, though, as the one where Alvarado pressed up against Porter after a free throw and swiped the ball right under his nose. At the post-game podium, Brandon Ingram told reporters Alvarado doesn’t have an off switch: “He’s probably screaming right now.”
In his first game in the G League, Alvarado had a game-winning steal. In the playoffs, Chris Paul caught him hiding in the corner and shouted at him to “get your ass back,” but Alvarado got him with the GTA two games later. Alvarado also forced Paul, his favorite player, to commit two eight-second violations. “I’m sitting on my couch at home doing the Tiger Woods fist pump, basically,” Saint said. Saint had seen that same ball pressure in Birmingham, and even in college, when he was an assistant coach at the University of Georgia and Alvarado was at Georgia Tech.
“He was really annoying,” Saint said. “And I just remember him. He just makes everything that you try to execute on your own offensive end very difficult. He just blows things up, messes up timing. He just plays fierce. It’s a level above hard. It’s fierce.”
Back home in Brooklyn, hours before kicking off his second season in the NBA, Alvarado recalled the mindset he had before he entered the league. “Just be Jose,” he said. “Compete every single time. Do not take no days off. And I just wanted to show that I belong.”
Fred VanVleet remembers watching Alvarado work out for the Toronto Raptors in June 2021, at the tail end of their temporary residency in Tampa Bay. There were six prospects, including Alvarado and Trendon Watford, now a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, trying to make an impression.
“It was probably the best draft workout I’ve ever seen,” VanVleet said. “Just the energy, the spirit, the competitiveness. And I just remember watching him like, ‘I remember being like that.’ You know what I mean? I could see myself in him. Just the mentality.”
Alvarado’s defining skill, Saint said, is that he “changes the temperature of the room, and he does it intentionally.” During a medium-energy scrimmage at Pelicans training camp, Alvarado threw some verbal jabs to bring some of his teammates up to his level.
“Every day that he walks in, not only does he work hard but he lifts the whole team up with his smile, with his honesty,” New Orleans coach Willie Green said. “His trash talking in practice gets everybody going. It’s fun to be around, honestly.”
He did not, however, earn regular minutes on a playoff team on good vibes alone. When he got his chance last season, “he provided something that we didn’t have,” Pelicans guard Garrett Temple said. They needed his energy, his defensive intensity and his ability to get downhill and put pressure on the rim.
“People are a little bit simple-minded,” VanVleet said. “So they get enamored by him hiding and stealing the ball and shit like that. But he can actually play. Like, he’s a really good player. He can shoot, he can score. He’s really, really good.”
If Alvarado’s abilities are not adequately appreciated, it might be because it’s tough to grasp what he has already accomplished. With executives and coaches are looking for size, strength and switchability, it has never been harder to be a small guard in the NBA.
“People don’t understand in the slightest,” Pelicans big man Larry Nance Jr. said. “In the slightest. You know how many people would kill — kill! — to be on this roster? And the fact that Jose — I’m not saying anything he wouldn’t admit to himself — he’s not the most physically gifted, he’s not the tallest, the most athletic. And to make it as a 6-foot, 6-1 guy, it’s tough. This league is not built for that.”
On per-minute basis, Alvarado finished first in the entire league in steals and third in deflections, among those who logged at least 500 minutes last season. “He just knows how to make people uncomfortable,” VanVleet said. “You gotta be able to fight, you gotta have quick hands and quick feet, be able to stick your nose in there, and that’s something that he makes a living off of.” Temple said he “didn’t know anything about him when he showed up,” but Alvarado “stood out in practice right away.”
When his chance materialized, “everybody was rooting for him,” Temple said. His off-the-court personality is one reason for that. (“He knows about your family,” Nance said. “He cares. And that’s rare in this league.”) Another is the deadly serious way he approached every drill, scrimmage and possession.
“It’s kill or be killed,” VanVleet said. “You’re really playing for your survival and you can’t really understand that unless you go through it. You’re really playing for your livelihood, you’re playing for your family.”
In a way, the stakes make it easier, VanVleet said: “There’s no time to take plays off, there’s no time to be emotional. And you’ve just gotta come in and make a mark. And that’s something I was obviously able to do and something I’m watching Jose do.”
Since sixth grade, Alvarado has derived a specific satisfaction from getting stops. “Everybody just wanted to be the best scorer,” he said, but he right away loved the feeling of “locking up somebody.” Long before he realized that basketball could change his life, he hated being scored on. Long before he tweeted that he would one day win Defensive Player of the Year, he became the first player in Christ the King High School history to record a quadruple-double with 10 steals.
“You don’t want nobody to go in your house and take something from you and walk out in front of you, right?” Alvarado said. “So that’s how it is. You go play defense.”
At shootaround at Barclays Center, after a loud, boisterous shooting competition that had him hopping down the floor in celebration, Alvarado said he was lucky to have landed in a “special place,” where all of this is valued.
“They love my competitiveness,” Alvarado said. “They love me, I love them, so it works out.”
Last March in New Orleans, Grand Theft Alvarado failed to produce a steal, but forced a turnover nonetheless. Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso released the ball when Alvarado poked at it, then tried to continue bringing it up. Referee Bill Kennedy signaled for a travel, as did Alvarado, a thousand times more enthusiastically.
Seven months later, when the play was brought up to Caruso, he interrupted: “They called travel. I didn’t travel. But they called it.” He was mad at the time and mad when he watched it again. “And as far as the play, we weren’t playing great, either, so I was not happy.”
After the Pelicans’ 126-109 win that night, Alvarado approached Caruso. From one fiesty, undrafted guard to another, Alvarado told Caruso that he’d paved the way by giving him the formula to become a contributor on a two-way contract.
“At the time I just said thanks and like moved on because I was pissed that we lost,” Caruso said. “But in preseason this year we played ’em and then I talked to him and told him, ‘Hey, man, you’re doing a great job, I remember what you told me last year.'”
Alvarado expressed similar admiration to VanVleet when they first met. After Alvarado signed his contract, VanVleet tweeted that it was well-deserved and texted Alvarado to “let him know that I’m proud of him,” VanVleet said. “I’m just super happy for his story and just the type of person he is, for him to have the success that he’s having. And people will continue to be surprised as he keeps growing, but I saw it, so I’m not. I know what he can do.”
In his second year, Alvarado still takes photos of every arena he visits and sends them to his family. He is often greeted by players and staff showing love.
“I always say hi to everybody,” Alvarado said. “I did 18 pre-draft workouts my first year, so all those 18 teams, I make sure I say hi, have that conversation. You earn respect as you work your butt off. So it was pretty cool to get everybody’s respect eventually.”
Energy got Alvarado in the door, and his sneak attacks got him attention. Now he is “here with more confidence,” he said. His offseason, which included a stint with Puerto Rico’s national team, was dedicated to becoming more consistent, especially with his jumper, so he can space the floor for Ingram, Zion Williamson and CJ McCollum. If opponents leave him open, “I want them to pay for it.” Thirteen games into 2022-23, Alvarado is shooting 48.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s. Based on his meager-by-NBA-standards contract, one could argue that it’s the Pelicans front office who are the thieves in this equation.
When he’s running the second unit, Alvarado wants to pick up the pace, get stops and get his teammates going. In the 128 minutes that he and McCollum have shared the backcourt, New Orleans has outscored opponents by 17.2 points per 100 possessions. He feels good about his pick-and-roll game and he takes pride in his passing.
“I know what I can bring,” he said. “I just want to get everybody to be happy on the court.”
In Las Vegas last summer, Alvarado got in the gym with future Hall of Famer Tony Parker. The backstory: Alvarado was watching Parker film, and he thought he might as well send him a direct message. “I hit him up and he answered right away,” Alvarado said. Parker worked with him on his floater, and “ever since then, we’ve been kicking it, even hang out, work out and we still talk to this day.”
Alvarado is not just soaking up knowledge, though; he is spreading it. Early in the G League season, the Squadron will show up for a film session and, instead, Zoom with Alvarado. “He’s going to talk about what it takes to make it to guys who are sitting in the same locker room in Birmingham that he was in a year ago,” Saint said.
After New Orleans spoiled the Nets’ home opener, Alvarado stopped on his way out of the visitors’ locker room to see what had happened in Memphis. On a reporter’s phone, he watched Grizzlies guard Tyus Jones dart from the corner of the court toward an unsuspecting ballhandler, steal the ball and make a layup. He could not contain himself.
“Copying!” Alvarado yelled. “They’re learning!”