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.