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From Switzerland With Love: Clint Capela is the Rockets’ next great big man

How Houston’s big man grabbed an opportunity the way he snags rebounds — with both hands.

Taylor Griffin

“Stronger” was the word of the day. Clint Capela might have used it 10 times in the span of a few minutes, I lost count.

He had spent his summer in the gym, and he wanted us in the media, and the Rockets fans to whom we are a conduit, to know about it. Sitting up on that tiny podium, it was obvious without his repetition.

ESPN officially lists him at 240 pounds, but he might have been closer to 245. Gone was the lanky 19-year old kid who could barely clock 215, unless he was soaked in rain. What sat before us was a 23-year-old man.

“What did you work on in the offseason?” a reporter asked.

“A lot of sprints, a lot of rebounds, getting stronger,” he said. “Weight room, adding more weights, getting stronger.”

There it was again. Twice, in fact.

During Chris Paul’s introductory press conference in July, I asked CP3 whether he saw some of the same qualities in Capela that he had been able to enjoy during his fruitful pick-and-roll relationship with DeAndre Jordan in his Clippers tenure.

Skip to around the 14-minute mark. Listen to what CP3 is saying about Capela, not even having played a meaningful NBA minute together:

“I had an opportunity to play with Clint, Trevor, and James when were in Vegas last week, and that’s what got me so excited. Cause Clint is so raw and ready to work, and ready to do whatever—screen, roll, defend and all that, and I’m excited about the opportunity for me to not only help him get better, but for him to help me get better.”

At that same podium later that day, a reporter brings up Paul’s recent arrival, and Capela’s face lights up. He had tweeted “More lobs!” after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski had broken the news that Daryl Morey had pulled off an incredible trade, landing the 9-time All-Star.

Capela mentions that he’s spent the past couple of weeks studying his game, along with that of DeAndre Jordan. He picks up tendencies and trends, seeing on what side Chris likes the screen set, the angles and nuances. There’s a lot more to pick-and-roll basketball than just picking and rolling.

Asked what his next step is, he pauses briefly.

“More,” he said. “To have the same impact, and playing more. Not 24, but maybe 28, 29, like keep going — keep getting stronger”

There it was again. Stronger.

Eight games into the new season, he’s still hovering around 24 minutes a night. Not quite what he wants early in the year, but he understands.

Morey’s roster wizardry has resulted in the Rockets being even deeper, and he actually played 28 minutes on the second night of a back to back. Coach Mike D’Antoni wants to increase his workload, and he’ll do it gradually. Young players want to get on the court as much as possible, but the season, especially the length of the season the Rockets intend on playing, is a marathon.

Capela is nonetheless grateful. He’s the starting center, night in and night out, of a Western Conference contender. Moreover, he’s in the NBA. A lot of guys play basketball all their lives and they never make it to that level. Capela very well could have been one of them.

His time spent in the Euroleague with the French team Chalon can best be described as a mixed bag. Chalon’s Romain Chenaud discovered him in 2009, and Capela had been with the team ever since. A coaching change midseason saw his stats soar, and once Mickael Hay was fired, his per-40-minute stat sheet looked outstanding (18.5 points, 13 rebounds, 3.2 blocks) considering his age — in the U.S. he would have been in high school.

But what caught the eye of analytics buffs and scouts was his efficiency, not the gaudy numbers. For starters, he was shooting an eye-popping 69 percent from the field, and almost 85 percent of his points came in the restricted area. About 48 percent of his offense came on cuts to the basket and putbacks. Capela shot 73.8 percent on cuts, and 65.5 percent on putbacks, putting him at the top of the efficiency charts, scoring 1.12 points per possession.

This is what caught the eye of analytics paterfamilias Daryl Morey, and is why he took a plane to Geneva, then commuted to Eastern France. He had to see this wonder for himself.

On that day, in Le Colisée, the team arena, Morey watched the Swiss phenom from the stands. He spent most of the game on the bench because of foul trouble, but while Capela was on the floor, the young man showed just what could become of him.

Morey was impressed.

Still, there were some questions. During the year, he would often take ill-advised jumpers in the game. He would fall in love with the outside shot, and wasn’t particularly good at it, making questionable decisions at times. Sometimes he saw himself as a small forward.

International scouts pegged him as a power forward, and he fit the bill of a prototypical modern NBA center. His body was crying out for muscle and tone, and his game needed fine-tuning. Whoever took him in the 2014 draft was taking a gamble on a kid, and many wondered if his game would translate to the next level.

With the 25th pick in that year’s draft, Houston took that chance.

Cody Duty—Houston Chronicle

The Rockets already had Dwight Howard in tow, and had signed undrafted free agent Tarik Black, so Capela’s development wouldn’t be rushed. Addressing his weight issue, the training staff fed him constantly, both before and after team practices.

The strength and conditioning team pushed him in anaerobic exercise and power & resistance drills, specifically designed to get his body NBA-ready. Capela had already given the team a physical muse, it was up to them to create a masterpiece.

That year, he would spend most of the year suiting up for Houston’s G-League, then the D-League, affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He put up an impressive 16 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3 blocks a game. Whenever he was recalled to the team, however, he would spend additional time working with John Lucas on his free throw form, and Hakeem Olajuwon on his touch and footwork.

Head coach Kevin McHale saw the energy and eagerness in the young man and was impressed.

“He just does his job well. He's really a nice, easy guy to like, nice young man. I think we're fortunate,” he said at the time. “I think he's going to be a very good NBA player. He's got a lot to learn, but the kid's just so willing to learn.”

He even got a taste of playoff basketball, in part thanks to Dwight Howard’s on-again, off-again relationship with the referees. How’s this for a playoff debut: 16 minutes, 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks.

Back on the frontline, there was real drama developing between the two co-stars, James Harden and Dwight Howard. Seeing as each player was reserved in nature, tension and awkwardness spilled over into the locker room, uncertainty of whose team it was. The 2015 season was full of back and forth, with “he-said, he saids” and a lack of understanding. The 30-point loss to Golden State in Game 5 of the first round brought all the issues full circle, as Dwight Howard looked apathetic and done with the situation. Behind closed doors, he issued a “me or him” ultimatum, and when Houston refused to answer, Howard walked.

Now what?

Naturally, the team turned to Capela to fill the huge hole left by Dwight. Two years of preparation had primed him for this moment, this chance. D’Antoni was also new in town, and had made the decision to move James Harden to point guard.

D’Antoni’s offense is predicated on pick-and-rolls and fast-paced play. Dwight was notorious in opposing that style, preferring to receive the ball on the block. Capela was different. He realized his gifts and potential, and wanted to put them on display.

“For us to have the season we want to have, Capela is going to have to take a big step forward,” Morey said. “That’s a big step. The game’s more physical and takes a big toll on your body to do that night in and night out, but he’s added a lot of muscle, he’s worked extremely hard over the last two years and this offseason, so we feel like he’s someone who can take that step forward.”

Capela took leaps and bounds last year, providing 16 points and 9 rebounds in the season debut, and finished the year with 12.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks a night.

A lot is made of Capela’s physical gifts, but his on-court awareness and IQ is a skill that often goes unnoticed, especially among players of his age and skill set. Capela knows exactly what he’s supposed to do, and works to perfect that.

“I knew that my job would be to run a lot, which is my game, do pick-and-rolls, which is my game,” Capela said. “They have me doing things that fit my game. Just finish hard, grab rebounds and run.”

Rumor has it that management actually pushed for Capela to start over Howard sometime while the two were teammates, and whether that story is true or not, it has to be said that Capela is the better fit for the team. He lacks an ego, and is a hand-in-glove fit for the offense the Rockets want to run.

Now, Capela is recording a monster 22-point, 17-rebound games, averaging 13 and 11 and more blocks than ever, still in just 24 minutes a night. According to Cleaning The Glass, he’s in the 100th percentile among big men in defensive rebounding percentage, and 85th percentile in offensive rebounding, in the 86th percentile in blocking shots, 91st percentile in steals and he’s leading the league in field goal percentage, hitting a ridiculous 72.3 percent.

Every season, Capela has improved on some aspect of his game. Chris Paul said he wanted him to become more of a leader on the defensive end of the floor, and while early in the season, you can see the growth there. Just take a look at how he’s able to stay with Mike Conley after a pick and roll switch, and uses his lateral quickness to follow him all the way to the rim. He even dives on the ground to keep the ball alive for good measure.

On both ends, he’s becoming more comfortable with himself, and the coaches see it. Most centers, upon receiving the ball, on the three-point line will wait for a guard to save them from a turnover. Not Capela. As the coaching staff trusts him more and more, the increased workload will come.

This is a big year for Clint Capela and the team for another reason: the Rockets chose not to offer an extension to his rookie contract, as their team policy has come to be. Next summer, he will enter into restricted free agency. He says he isn’t letting contract talks and negotiations distract him.

“Honestly, I'm not worried about it," Capela said. "I'm looking just forward to the season, stay healthy and we'll see what happens next summer. I just move forward, try to do the best for the team.”

At this rate, it’s hard to foresee Capela playing anywhere else. He has bloomed from a promising, rail-thin youngster to one of the best centers in the NBA. He’s still just 23. He has an unbreakable lob connection with James Harden, who will be playing here well into the next decade. His destiny is beginning to take shape as a foundational piece of the Rockets franchise, another in their long line of great centers.

“We'll see what happens,” Capela said. “I like this team, but I know also this is the NBA. Anything can happen. I'm ready for whatever.”

And so is Houston.