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Rockets 2018 season recap: Clint Capela took that leap

We’ve been watching a young man grow right before our eyes.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

What a year for the young man from Switzerland. He was just as big a part of the success for the Houston Rockets as James Harden and Chris Paul. Even if he wasn’t scoring as much as Houston’s two stars, the mere threat of his presence and the possibility of his thunderous alley-oops opened things up for Harden, Paul and others.

And when he did try to score, he was virtually impossible to stop. Capela led the NBA in field goal percentage, shooting 65.2 percent from the floor. And he also improved his free throw stroke as well. Endless hours in the gym shooting hundreds of free throws a day with John Lucas pushed his freebies up to a career-high 56 percent. It may not seem like much, but for a player that shot just 17 percent from the line in his first season, it’s incredible progress.

No longer a complete and total liability on the line, teams were more reluctant to employ a hack-a-Capela strategy, which kept him on the floor more. That improved shooting from the stripe combined with an increase in stamina and better lateral quickness to keep him active against just about any opposing lineup and resulted in a career-high 27.5 minutes per game.

But perhaps his biggest improvement was on the defensive end. He finished with another career high in blocked shots, averaging 1.9 per game, a career high in rebounds, with 10.8 per game, and also a career high in defensive plus-minus, with +2.9. His rebounds were good enough to finish ninth in the entire NBA, he finished fourth in blocked shots, and his defensive RPM was just inside the top 10 for centers and the top 20 overall for the entire Association.

Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, GM Daryl Morey and many of Capela’s teammates spent the year praising Clint for his improvements and touting his importance to everything the Rockets do both offensively and defensively. They’re not the same team offensively without his threat off the pick and roll, and his ability to function in Houston’s switch-heavy defensive scheme was a key component of their leap to from an average defensive squad to a very good one.

But he wasn’t just a regular season phenom. He also showed up big time in the postseason.

He outplayed Karl-Anthony Towns in Houston’s first-round defeat of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and he followed up that performance by taking it to Rudy Gobert in the Rockets’ win in the second round over the Utah Jazz.

He was less effective in the Western Conference Finals versus the Golden State Warriors, but that didn’t stop Capela from improving on his regular season numbers in just about every category.

His playoff blocked shots jumped up to 2.1 per game, his rebounds went up to 11.6 per game, and his field goal percentage jumped slightly to 66 percent. His scoring did dip slightly down to 12.7 points per game (from 13.9), but primarily on the back of the Golden State series, in which he received double-digit shot attempts just one time in seven games.

To top all of this off, the young man just turned 24 years old in May, meaning he hasn’t even entered his physical prime yet. Since he entered the league as such a raw prospect, he likely has even more improvement left to go.

He could add a little to his post repertoire, which would give the Rockets another option when they absolutely have to get a bucket. He could also add a little range to offensive game. Just 2 percent of Capela’s shots came from beyond 10 feet this past season. Just imagine how devastating a force he could be offensively if he could add a short jumper and a turnaround to his shot set.

He also needs to continue to improve on his free throw shooting, his perimeter defense, and his stamina. If he can get his minutes up into the 30-32 range (certainly not out of the question as he continues to grow as player), he should put himself squarely and clearly in the discussion of the top centers in the league.

The elephant in the room, however, is that Capela is slated for restricted free agency this summer and is certain to receive a multitude of offers. In fact, the Phoenix Suns have been “enamored” with the young man for months, according to USA Today Rockets writer Kelly Iko, and are fully prepared to offer him a max deal.

That will put the Rockets in a tough situation financially, as they almost have to match any offer he receives (what other options are there at center?), and they also have the free agency situations of Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza to handle, along with their pursuit of another stud to compete with the Warriors.

Daryl Morey’s already gone on record saying that Capela can’t price himself out, telling ESPN earlier this past season:

“We’ll have him here as long as he’ll have us. He couldn’t price himself out. The only way to overcome the Warriors is to develop near-elite two-way players. I think Clint has that potential. He’s on the way. He took a big step forward last year. It’s a lot to put on one guy, but we need one more step, at least.”

With how hard the young man has worked to this point so far, the incredible amount of improvement that work has paid off in, and Houston’s obvious faith with their willingness to match, I think it’s fair to say we have yet to see the best of Clint Capela. We’ll be waiting and watching as he takes that next step.