Lowe: The surprising center behind the Hawks’ meteoric rise

‘I’m thinking about dominating the paint’: How Clint Capela has anchored the surging Hawks

SHORTLY AFTER DRAFTING him No. 25 in 2014, Houston Rockets officials took Clint Capela to a Houston Astros baseball game — their usual initiation for draftees.

Capela had just turned 20, and was sensitive about his ability to communicate in English. He grew up in foster care in Switzerland before moving to France as a teenager to pursue basketball.

He had no idea what was going on in the game. Houston staffers explained balls and strikes. Just as Capela was getting it, one pitcher whipped the ball to first base — a pick-off move. Why suddenly throw to a new place?

“It was boring,” Capela says. “How long is the game? You don’t even see a time.”

The Rockets drafted Capela with the idea of stashing him overseas, sources say. They were conserving cap space to pursue Chris Bosh in the event LeBron James left the Miami Heat. Houston was hot on Bruno Caboclo, selected five spots before Capela, and even considered — very briefly — drafting Shabazz Napier to appeal to James after he had tweeted his affection for Napier, sources say.

Capela wanted the NBA right away. He spent almost his entire rookie season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in what is now the G League. The Vipers were a laboratory for Houston’s analytics experiments. They played fast and launched record numbers of 3s — potentially awkward for a paint-bound big man. In brief call-ups, Capela missed his first 19 NBA shots — field goals and free throws.

“It was hard,” he says. “Just to live by myself and try to get better at English. I was always looking for someone to speak French with, but in Houston there is not much of that.”

Capela carried a notebook everywhere. Coaches spotted him writing in it: English phrases, basketball terminology, life advice. “You could see him learning every day,” says Nevada Smith, then the Vipers’ coach. Capela still has that notebook.

Capela understood the Rockets, with James Harden and Dwight Howard, were in win-now mode. “How can I be valuable now?” he wondered. He found the simplest answer: “I like to run.”

And so it was that some 340 miles southeast of Houston, playing for the Vipers, Capela tried to beat his man down the floor every possession. He would screen and roll, screen and roll. He never demanded the ball, or any play calls.

Houston promoted him late in the season. Capela appeared in every playoff game as the Rockets fell to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 conference finals. “It was a lot to take in,” Capela says.

Capela started 35 games next season, sometimes next to Howard, and tried to serve as peacemaker between Howard and Harden as their relationship deteriorated. Some within the Rockets wondered if Howard was intentionally whiffing on picks for Harden or not setting as many as Harden wanted, sources say. Harden at one point asked the coaching staff if he could come off the bench to play more with Capela, sources said. (Those sources assumed Harden was being facetious, and really prodding the Rockets to start Capela alone.)

“I could kind of get them together,” Capela says. “We were able to speak and laugh together. When I was around both of them, there were no issues with us talking.”

But at 21, he had limited locker room heft. Capela often found himself the target of scoldings from veterans. One coach suggested Capela playfully defend himself by declaring he would not rebound until everyone relented.

With the Atlanta Hawks, he is suddenly an old head. Nate McMillan, Atlanta’s coach, leans on Capela for scheduling advice — when the team might need an off day, or a light film session.

Once shy in English, Capela is now a communicator — in part to make sure the kind of animosity that festered in Houston never enters the Hawks’ bloodstream. There have long been rumblings about tension between star guard Trae Young and big man John Collins, but the team and both principals insist they are exaggerated.

“In Houston, communication was a problem,” Capela says. “They either didn’t want to say something, or didn’t know how. What I take from that is just go and say it. If you express yourself the right way and you are polite, it should work every time. Let’s try to enjoy the grind.”

Capela now shouts orders as the anchor of Atlanta’s defense. “The communication has surprised me,” Bogdan Bogdanovic says. “You really hear him.” He has even started a regular Monopoly game at hotels with Danilo Gallinari, Solomon Hill, and members of the training staff — physical board and everything.

Capela is producing at career-best levels: 15 points on almost 60% shooting, and a league-best 14.5 rebounds. He is No. 1 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, and a bulwark defending the basket. Capela ranks fourth in blocks, and keeps his rejections inbounds so the Hawks can retrieve them. Amid injuries, Capela has been Atlanta’s constant.

“I don’t think anyone expected [the Hawks] to be where we are, and Clint is probably the No. 1 reason,” McMillan says.

Teammates say Capela should factor more into Defensive Player of the Year chatter. “Other guys talk about winning it, and even if they are deserving, I don’t think that’s the best way to do it,” Bogdanovic says. “Clint doesn’t talk, so he doesn’t get enough credit.”

The Hawks have allowed six fewer points per 100 possessions with Capela on the floor. Opponents have shot just 52% at the rim with Capela nearby — a tick stingier than Joel Embiid, and only a little behind Rudy Gobert. Capela ranks second — trailing Gobert — in ESPN’s defensive adjusted plus-minus.

Gaudy numbers are landing Capela on the national radar. To him, nothing has changed. He still runs, and runs, and demands none of the trappings.

“It’s like, ‘I’ve always been good and you all are just noticing,'” he says.

BACK-TO-BACK postseason losses to the Warriors left the Rockets worried Capela would always struggle against lineups with Draymond Green at center, sources say. The Rockets lost confidence in Capela’s ability to switch onto Golden State’s guards, though Capela’s self-belief in that facet never wavered.

Capela hadn’t shown the post game to punish switching defenses that often prevail in the playoffs. He’d averaged less than an assist per game. Rim-running centers were going out of style; how much of Capela’s production could Houston find for cheap?

By 2019, Harden had shifted away from the pick-and-roll and toward isolations. That left Capela hanging around the rim, waiting for lobs.

It spoke to Harden’s methodological nature. He prefers to survey the floor with a clear view, and shift the chess pieces around as he likes. A pick-and-roll invited unpredictability. A big man could trap, hang back, switch.

The introduction of Russell Westbrook last season cramped Houston’s spacing. The Rockets jettisoned Capela, and went all-in on small ball. Capela had been dealing with a plantar fascia injury and a bone bruise in his heel when the Rockets sent the then-six-year vet to Houston. The trade stung.

“I was surprised, but I also felt the team was going downhill,” Capela says. “I was scared I would never find a vibe like that again — a winning team, in the playoffs every year.”

The Hawks wanted a center to fortify their defense. They discussed Andre Drummond and Steven Adams, sources say. They thought elements of Capela’s pick-and-roll partnership with Harden would translate to Young’s game.

That would also mean an adjustment for Collins, Young’s main screen-and-dive partner. Collins was on board with the trade, and invited the challenge of rounding out his perimeter game.

“Getting better players means you have to improve your game or take a step back,” Collins says. “I didn’t want to take a step back.”

The injury and pandemic delayed chemistry building. Capela was diligent doing what rehab he could from home, team officials say. When Atlanta’s performance staff could see Capela in person again, they put him through arduous drills — including an exercise in which Capela had to traverse a sandbox using only his toes to grip the sand and drag himself forward. It is a method of rebuilding foot strength. It took Capela 10 minutes to cover a distance that required one or two normal strides.

In lockdown, Young and Capela spoke often. When the Hawks reconvened in September for their own bubble — and then later for informal workouts — Young and Capela hit it off. “They have basically become best friends,” McMillan says.

“We have a real connection,” Young says.

Young often chit-chats with opposing bigs in games, talking trash and dissecting pick-and-roll coverages. Upon hearing about the Capela trade, Young remembered their fun in-game jabs going both ways — Young bragging about a floater that crested out of Capela’s reach, Capela swatting Young’s layup and boasting.

They developed a rhythm on the pick-and-roll, Capela feeling out the differences between Harden and Young.

“James is slow, processing,” Capela says. “He can take his time. Trae is more of a speed guy with lots of touch.”

Harden rarely attempted floaters. Young takes more than anyone.

CAPELA REALIZED THAT the combination of Young’s speed and the tendency of defenses to trap him exposed offensive rebounding opportunities. Once Capela’s man doubles Young, Capela zips into inside position — and holds it until the ball hits the rim. Young launches so fast, Capela can root out rebounding territory without worrying about three-second calls.

“Sometimes I shoot the floater just because I know his man will contest,” Young says. “If it doesn’t go in, it’s going to Clint. He’s a beast.”

Capela has become one of the league’s best at one-handed tip-ins — a skill he says he didn’t prioritize until this season. Capela noticed how often he was fighting off defenders with one hand, and figured he might as well use the other for tips. He is uncanny tipping lefty. He has gotten much stronger in recent years — Capela is part of Atlanta’s regular postgame lifting group — and is unusually mobile and well-balanced for a player his size, coaches say.

He remains a premiere lob-catcher — a natural fit alongside Young. John Lucas, the longtime Houston Rockets assistant, often had Capela practice alley-ooping tennis balls, Capela says. He has also made great strides on non-dunk finishes in traffic.

Diving to the rim can be thankless; for every alley-oop, there might be dozens of possessions on which you don’t touch the ball. The same is true for running the floor, and few bigs run harder than Capela. He has scored 13 baskets within 24 seconds of blocking an opponent’s shot — most in the league, per Elias Sports Bureau research.

But fans may not notice when those rim runs suck in the defense, and unlock open 3s for teammates.

“I am going to outwork you the whole game,” Capela says. “Maybe it doesn’t look that nice. Maybe it’s not on social media. But it’s efficient.”

Anyone inflicting that much damage around the rim gets hacked, and free throw shooting has been Capela’s bugaboo. His contract contains a $500,000 bonus if he hits at least 65% on foul shots, per league sources; he is at 57%, and has cracked 60% just once.

During Capela’s first summer league in Las Vegas, they had him arrive at the gym at 6 a.m. and stay until he hit 500 free throws. At first, it took two hours. “Tough mornings,” Capela says. He got it down to 45 minutes.

Capela’s set shot can list left; the Rockets tried everything to correct it. Houston coaches sometimes sat Capela in a folding chair at the foul line with a hula hoop hanging above his head — parallel to the floor — and attached to a pole behind the chair. Capela had to release the ball through the hoop without banging into it. They sometimes had a coach stand behind Capela holding a ruler — and asked Capela to shoot free throws without hitting it.

The Rockets scrapped shootarounds under Mike D’Antoni, but Capela showed up every game-day morning anyway. Lucas let Capela leave right away if he hit six free straight free throws.

Atlanta will trade some iffy free throw shooting for Capela’s ferocious defense, which should earn some All-Defense consideration — an uphill battle, with Gobert and either Embiid or Bam Adebayo favored for the two center slots.

For a bouncy dunker, it is notable how rarely Capela jumps on defense until it is time to chase a rebound. He crouches in his stance against the pick-and-roll, arms spread so wide he effectively guards two players at once. He locks eyes with the ball-handler, betraying nothing. That ball handler wants Capela to move first — flinch, jump, lurch. He won’t. That uncertainty unnerves all but the very best.

“I’m in your head,” Capela says. “‘Is he jumping or not?'”

If that ball handler settles for a floater, Capela may not even contest it. That judiciousness leaves him in ideal rebounding position. It makes up for Capela’s eschewing textbook boxouts. He prefers to leap and pursue rebounds, but he can’t do that if he’s already airborne chasing blocks. Atlanta’s defensive rebounding rate craters when Capela rests.

“In my first year, I was jumping all over the place,” Capela says. “I learned you can’t do that. If I jump and miss, [the other team] is ready to put it back in.”

That does not mean Capela is a reluctant shot-blocker — just a choosy one. He has a knack for verticality, and risks posterization to meet dunkers at the apex.

That left Capela on the wrong end of perhaps the dunk of the year — Miles Bridges’ epic throwdown that sent Capela stumbling toward the baseline. When he saw that, Smith, Capela’s coach in Rio Grande, thought about something he used to tell Capela: “Guys who play hard will get dunked on. Guys who don’t play hard won’t, but they won’t make it, either.”

“I wonder if he remembers that,” Smith says.

Capela plays like it. No one noticed, but Bridges’ dunk materialized only after Capela erased a Terry Rozier drive at the rim — leading to a second-chance scramble for the Charlotte Hornets.

“I’m not thinking, ‘I want to look nice’ or ‘I want to make a nice move,'” Capela says. “I’m thinking about dominating the paint.”

Credit: Source link