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Clint Capela providing Rockets with much-needed hope

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – The Rockets, who drafted Clint Capela with the No. 25 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, reportedly got into a contract dispute with him that summer. It seemed they wanted Capela to spend another season with his French pro team in order to maximize their cap space. Capela said his agent advised him to remain patient.

But, as he tells it, Capela saw one option: Jump to the NBA immediately.

“It was important to me to come when I was young, to keep progressing,” said Capela, whom Houston eventually signed.

That year of seasoning is paying off.

Capela is the biggest bright spot on the NBA’s most disappointing team.

Houston’s youngest player, 21-year-old Capela ranks third on the team in win shares behind James Harden and Dwight Howard. The Rockets are 7-2 since making Capela a full-time starter following a 5-10 start.

“There’s still a lot of room for growth, but the confidence that he has, the lack of fear – there’s no situation too big for Clint,” Houston interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said.

Not anymore.

Capela spent most of his rookie season in the D-League, but the Rockets surprisingly put him in the playoff rotation for their run to the Western Conference finals. He became just the second player* in NBA history who recorded more postseason than regular-season minutes (excluding those who signed after the season began, suffered major injury or served in the military during the season) – 90 minutes in 12 regular-season games, 127 minutes in 17 postseason games.

*Marcin Gortat is the other. He played 41 minutes in six-regular season games and 48 minutes in eight playoff games for the 2007-08 Magic as a rookie.

Capela’s initial nerves about playing in the NBA showed. He missed his first 15 free throws in the top league. Then, once he finally started to get comfortable, the playoffs sent him back to square one.

“It was different – the crowd and everything, the details, all that,” Capela said.

Now, with that experience under his belt, Capela is taking his game to the next level.

He’s not the most refined player, but he tends to get to the right spots on both ends of the floor. Once there, he uses his impressive physical skills – including a 7-foot-5 wingspan – to make a play. He’s a quality pick-and-roll finisher, and he crashes the offensive glass hard. He also combines the foot speed to defend the pick-and-roll and the leaping ability to protect the rim.

Simply, Capela – who’s averaging 8.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 20.0 minutes per game – is one of Houston’s top players.

Still, starting him presented complications. He has made only one shot outside the paint in his career. How could such a limited shooter fit next to Howard?

Capela says he focused on floor spacing playing overseas, and it shows. His knack for finding the right spot includes getting out of Howard’s way. Howard actually shoots better with Capela on the floor (74% vs. 58%).

That has allowed the Rockets to enjoy the benefits of pairing the bigs.

When Capela and Howard share the floor, Houston grabs 36% of available offensive rebounds (which would have led the NBA any season this millennium) and 83% of available defensive rebounds (which would set a league record).

The Rockets’ are outscoring opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions with Capela and Howard on the floor, the best net rating of the team’s 50 most-used tandems and one of only a dozen positive ratings in the group. The only other duos coming close to Capela-Howard also feature Capela (Capela-Trevor Ariza and Capela-Marcus Thornton):

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Capela might be Howard’s eventual replacement as Houston’s starting center, but for now, Bickerstaff says Howard has taken Capela under his wing. Howard said he encourages Capela by mentioning that the youngster followed Thabo Sefolosha as only the second Swiss player in NBA history.

“This is a dream, a dream come true,” Howard said he tells Capela. “So, just keep playing and have a good time, because there are plenty of players in Switzerland who wish they were you.”

There are probably a couple Rockets who wish they were Capela, too.

Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas have started at power forward for Houston the last couple years. Neither received a contract extension, meaning they’ll become restricted free agents next summer. Getting stuck behind Capela limits their opportunities to show their worth.

The Capela-Howard pairing might not last, though. As well as they’re doing so far, it’s difficult to spread the floor with two non-shooters once defenses adjust. Motiejunas is just beginning to get fully healthy, and he could supplant Capela if fit becomes a bigger issue.

But Capela has shown his talent, and the Rockets will ride him as the starting power forward next to Howard as long as possible. It’s one of the few things that has worked for them this season.

Beyond, they’ll have to take Capela into account when determining how much to pay Jones and Motiejunas. Capela’s natural position is center, but he’s clearly versatile enough to play power forward. When he becomes eligible for an extension in the summer of 2017, he could command a sizable deal.

Just five other players in NBA history have averaged at least 14 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per 36 minutes at age 21 or younger (more than 10 games):

  • Moses Malone
  • Darryl Dawkins
  • Shaquille O’Neal
  • Andrew Bynum
  • Andre Drummond

Capela must prove it over a bigger sample and against better competition. Six of Houston’s seven wins since he became a regular starter are over teams with losing records, and the Rockets’ three-game road trip this week – at the Nuggets tonight, Kings tomorrow and Lakers on Thursday – features more losing teams.

But Capela was ready for the challenge of the playoffs without much playing time behind him. Why won’t he eventually handle tougher teams in the regular season?

“He’s got belief,” Bickerstaff said. “And now he’s getting experience.”

Much to Houston’s benefit.

Coach of the Year predictions: Quin Snyder, Brad Stevens, or maybe Doc Rivers?

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With the start of the NBA season just more than a week away — it’s predictions time. We’ll be covering most of the postseason awards between now and the opening tip of the NBA season.

As a disclaimer, we get it: making NBA preseason awards predictions is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We’ll be wrong. But it’s fun, so the NBA staff here at NBC is making our picks. Today…

COACH OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin Quin Snyder (Utah Jazz). This race, like the NBA itself this season, is wide open. And also like the NBA this year, don’t sleep on Utah’s coach picking up some hardware. Outside of that guy in San Antonio, no coach has built a better system and culture than Snyder has in Utah. He has constructed an elite defense around Rudy Gobert owning the paint. On offense, the Jazz can’t just throw the ball to a Stephen Curry or James Harden, so Snyder has implemented a ball and player movement system that keeps defenses off balance. Utah won 50 games last season and this season adds quality veterans in Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic — guys who will fit in with that culture. The Jazz are a high profile, potential contending team this season because of what Snyder has built, and the improved status will have voters wanting to recognize Snyder.

Dan Feldman: Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics).  Stevens is a good coach. He has flaws, most notably recently his inability to connect with a star like Kyrie Irving. Irving can be particularly difficult to coach, but some of his issues follow most top talents. Stevens will have to show growth in his ability to guide a championship contender. But with these Celtics, Stevens can coach to his strengths — communicating clear roles to his players in a sound scheme. There’s a clear path for Boston to have a good record in the East, and credit for Stevens would likely follow.

Dane Delgado: Alvin Gentry (New Orleans Pelicans). The New Orleans Pelicans have a tough road ahead, with several new players and an outstanding rookie that still needs to get accustomed to life in the NBA. But there’s a lot of hope in The Big Easy that Zion Williamson and the Pelicans will be a postseason team this year, and you can count me in the camp of folks who believe New Orleans will make that leap in it 2019-20. If that’s the case, head coach Alvin Gentry will be tops on the list out west to take home the award for best coach in the NBA. Gentry has a bit of a head start — he’s a proven coach, and last year his team battled admirably through the Anthony Davis trade fiasco. If Gentry can go from 33 wins to the playoffs, one season removed from losing a franchise cornerstone player, I’m not sure who else would even challenge him for Coach of the Year.

Harrison and Brittany Barnes to pay for funeral of Atataina Jefferson

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Harrison Barnes now plays for the Sacramento Kings, but he and wife Brittany still have ties back in Texas. Barnes played for two-and-a-half seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, and now the couple is stepping in to help the community back in Dallas in a big way.

According to multiple reports, the Barneses have offered to pay for the funeral of Atatiana Jefferson, a Texas woman shot and killed by a Forth Worth Police Department officer last week.

That officer, Aaron Dean, has since resigned and been charged with Jefferson’s murder.

Via Twitter:

Jefferson was reportedly watching her 8-year-old nephew when a neighbor called in a welfare check to the non-emergency police line. The neighbor noticed her door was open, and police responded at 2:25 a.m.

From NBC News:

Body camera footage shows the perspective of the officer outside the home, peering inside a window using a flashlight, spotting someone inside standing near a window and telling her, “Put your hands up — show me your hands,” before shooting seconds later. At no point does he identify himself as an officer.

This is extremely generous on the part of the Barnes family and another example of how players can come to grow close to the places they play in.

Lakers exercise 4th-year contract option on Kyle Kuzma

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) The Los Angeles Lakers have exercised their contract option on forward Kyle Kuzma for the 2020-21 season.

The Lakers made the move Thursday on Kuzma, who is currently out with a foot injury suffered while playing for USA Basketball during the summer.

Kuzma was the 27th overall pick in the 2017 draft out of Utah. He has become a solid NBA scorer, putting up 18.7 points and 5.5 rebounds last season while starting 68 games for the Lakers.

Kuzma will make over $3.56 million next season in the fourth-year option of his rookie contract. He is making $1.97 million this season.

The Lakers expect Kuzma to return to action soon. He has been cleared for noncontact basketball activities.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-NBA

John Wall will be an assistant coach for the Wizards this season

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John Wall won’t be playing for the Washington Wizards of this season, but he will have a chance to do something for the team that’s helpful. With Bradley Beal back on board after signing a 2-year, max-level extension, Wall will be helping coach Scott Brooks from the sidelines.

According to a new story from NBC Sports Washington, Wall will be helping Brooks this season in an assistant coaching role. For his part, Wall has said that he is excited about the opportunity, and that it’s a chance to see what his life after basketball might hold when it comes to potentially getting into coaching.

Via NBC Sports Washington:

“I think this year will tell me whether I can be a coach or not,” Wall told NBC Sports Washington on the Wizards Talk podcast.

“I think you have to have a lot of patience and you’ve gotta know how to interact with every player. Every player’s attitudes and character and mood swings are totally different. I learned from when a coach tried to coach me when I was young and I wasn’t the guy to coach.”

This is a good idea to keep Wall around the team and engaged. It would be sort of weird if Wall just wasn’t around while he did rehab, then expected to come back as the top dog next season.

He may never be the player he was before his injury, but if Wall remains with Brooks on the sideline for the remainder of the season it would mean he’s at least committed to taking the culture seriously in D.C. That, or he doesn’t want Beal to usurp his throne.