'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.