D'Antoni: 'A matter of time' until Capela is among NBA's elite centers

Clint Capela just wanted to go back.

He wanted to go back to live with his mother in the small house in what he refers to as "not the nice part" of Geneva, Switzerland. Capela, 12 years old at the time, wanted to get out of the group home where he lived with teenage boys -- many dealing with drug and anger issues -- who picked on the skinny, new kid under the watch of adults "berating us like we're dogs."

His mother, Philomene, an immigrant from Congo raising her sons by herself after her husband left the family when Capela was a baby, tearfully decided years before to send her sons to live with orphans and other underprivileged boys in the nearby group home, where they'd have more support and supervision.

Capela was 6 years old when he left with his older brother, Fabrice. He credits the educators who ran the first group home he lived in for teaching him the life skills and values that molded him into the man he is today.

There are no such recollections from the next phase of his childhood, when he moved to his second group home after graduating from elementary school.

"It was almost kind of a prison," Capela said. "Usually, when you go in that house, you're not going back home the year after. It was so important to me: Go to bed with my family, go to school like everybody. That was my dream."

Capela spent that year determined to prove he was different -- his brother had already been released from the home -- that he didn't need the structure and discipline of the group home, that he could live a normal life.

He fought when forced to by older boys but says he was otherwise as polite and well-behaved as possible. He made sure he always was on time and attentive in class, that he studied hard and turned in every assignment.

"When you say what the modern center should look like, it'll have his picture there."
Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, on Clint Capela's evolution

Those traits are now serving Capela well in his NBA journey from unknown backup to key starter on a Rockets team built for a championship run. They're why Houston believes Capela can emerge as its third star in the final season of his rookie contract. It's a path Capela began at 12 years old, a time when his only goal was getting back to his family. And it worked.

"I was so perfect that they couldn't say anything," Capela said. "I had to be perfect to go home."

WHEN CAPELA FIRST picked up a basketball, he was a long, lanky 13-year-old soccer player who knew next to nothing about the game. After he left the group home, his brother urged Capela to join him playing basketball at a local park.

It was the spark that set Capela on a basketball fast track. By the time he was 14, Capela's size, athleticism and potential earned him a spot on the Swiss under-16 team. He had never seen a second of NBA action until his older teammates started showing him highlights and telling him about their favorite players.

Clips of a dominant big man, who fascinated them with his explosiveness, became must-see viewing.

"Who is that guy?" Capela asked.

"You should watch," Capela recalls his teammates responding. "He plays for the Orlando Magic, No. 12."

Capela soon received an invitation to the training academy of the premier French club Elan Chalon, following in the footsteps of Thabo Sefolosha, the first Swiss NBA player, by moving two and a half hours from home at age 15. At 20, after graduating from the academy to play for Chalon in the French Pro A league, Capela was drafted 25th overall by the Rockets.

After spending most of his rookie season in the D-League, Capela established himself as a solid role player with the Rockets behind All-Star center Dwight Howard, the same dominant big man who once wore No. 12 for the Magic and had captivated him in those highlight clips.

Howard's relationship with the Rockets, and James Harden in particular, was rocky by the time Capela arrived in Houston. Howard's reluctance to accept his role and desire for post touches disrupted the flow of the offense and ultimately led to a divorce after three years.

Capela is sort of the anti-Dwight. He has no problem with an offensive role that consists primarily of running the floor, setting screens, rolling hard to the rim and rebounding. He understands the value of the vertical spacing he provides.

And you'll certainly never hear Capela complain about a lack of post touches.

"Nah, that's not his personality," says Rockets assistant coach Roy Rogers, who works with Houston's big men. "Clint's a team-first guy. He understands his role on the team, and he accepts his role. He's excited about his role."

Part of the behind-the-scenes drama that season was the front office pushing then-interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff -- Kevin McHale was fired 11 games into a disastrous 2015-16 season -- to give Capela, then a raw 21-year-old, more minutes at the expense of Howard, an eight-time All-Star on a maximum deal.

The data backed up the move: The Rockets had a net rating of plus-3.1 points per 100 possessions when Capela played, compared to plus-0.2 with Howard.

"The reality was we were beating teams much easier when Clint was out there," Rockets GM Daryl Morey said. "We were really, really good when Clint was playing."

JOHN LUCAS HAD concerns about Capela upon being hired as the Rockets' head of player development in the summer of 2015. The franchise was counting on the raw big man to play a much more significant role, but he was standing in his own way.

Capela feared the free throw line.

"A lost young man. Lost," Lucas, the No. 1 overall pick by the Rockets in 1976, said in his raspy voice.

Capela had missed the first 15 free throws of his NBA career (as well as his first 11 field goal attempts) and finished his rookie year 4-of-23 from the stripe, though he did go 15-of-29 during the Rockets' run to the 2015 Western Conference finals.

Capela shot 37.9 percent on free throws in his second season, worse than all but four players in NBA history with at least 150 attempts in a season. Capela says he played hesitantly because he didn't want to be fouled, hating the isolation and humiliation that came after.

Lucas made Capela his project. Beginning with 6 a.m. workouts in Las Vegas in early July, Capela took thousands of free throws under Lucas' supervision. They honed Capela's technique via repetitions and video study.

But Lucas focused most on Capela's confidence and mental approach. To push Capela to achieve his potential, Lucas needed to get to the root of his problems.

"Basketball isn't a skill thing. It's a confidence thing," said Lucas, adding that he knows Capela is pressing when he sees the center biting his lip. Capela said it's a habit he's unaware of.

What had worked for Capela as a young boy was holding him back on the basketball court.

"If you believe that you can get it done, then your mind will take you," Lucas says. "He was trying to be perfect."

WHEN CHRIS PAUL arrived in Houston in a summer blockbuster with the LA Clippers, Capela knew what to expect:

Sure, the spotlight in Houston shines on the pairing of perennial All-Star facilitators in the backcourt. However, for the Rockets to have any real hope of dethroning the defending champion Golden State Warriors, they'll need Capela to be their poor man's Wilt Chamberlain.

"The only way [to overcome the Warriors] is to develop near-elite two-way players," Morey said. "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."

Despite splashy moves like the trade for Paul, Capela remains the Rockets' X factor: the one young player on Houston's veteran-heavy roster with the hope for dramatic growth.

Capela's scoring and rebounding averages increased significantly in his first season as a full-time starter, comparing favorably to the age-22 seasons of Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan, the league's premier centers in the rim runner/rebounder/rim protector mold.

This season, Capela is off to a hot start as an analytics All-Star, ranking fifth in the league with a 28.6 player efficiency rating, higher than Harden's and those of defending champions Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.

"To me, it's just a matter of time," Houston coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I'll be very surprised if he doesn't become, if not the best center in the league, one of the best. I'll be shocked."

The hiring of D'Antoni, signings of shooters Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon and shift of Harden to point guard were all factor's in Houston's 55-win 2016-17 season. But D'Antoni said Capela proving himself as a quality starting center (and passable free throw shooter) was "probably the No. 1" reason for the Rockets' rebound season.

"He was just kind of thrown into the fire once Dwight left, but he took it and he ran with it," Harden said. "He's listened, he's worked hard every single day in the weight room, and he just got better. Defensively, he got better. Offensively, he's so mobile and skilled. His touch around the rim has got better. He continues to work.

"He's over there working on his free throws as we speak. He won't stop."

IF THE ROCKETS plan to keep Capela -- he's expected to get a massive raise from the $2.3 million he's making this season when he hits restricted free agency this summer -- it would push the Rockets into the luxury tax, which new owner Tilman Fertitta is on record as willing to pay for a title contender. Without hesitation, Morey said he considers re-signing Capela worth the cost.

"We'll have him here as long as he'll have us," Morey said. "He couldn't price himself out."

But Morey wants more from Capela. Asked in the preseason how he hopes Capela will improve, Morey takes a few minutes to answer, basically touching on every aspect of the big man's game.

"I mean, if you're going to be an elite player, it's a long list of stuff you've got to do," Morey said.

D'Antoni just wants to play Capela more. Capela, who at times showed signs of fatigue, averaged 23.9 minutes per game last season, but D'Antoni said he expects Capela's endurance will improve as a result of his offseason strength and conditioning work and natural physical maturation.

"He can get a little bit better at the foul line, and he can get better with his endurance," D'Antoni said, and Capela's free throw percentage has soared to .783 this season. "When he does that, when you say what the modern center should look like, it'll have his picture there."

The Rockets love Capela's kind, gentle soul off the court. He's a bubbly personality whose goofy, off-tune "Acapella with Capela" videos are a hit during timeouts at the Toyota Center. He truly cares about the community, as shown when he used his Twitter account to help coordinate Hurricane Harvey rescue efforts.

"A fine young man," Lucas said, "the kind of guy you would leave your house to and not worry that there's going to be a whole bunch of parties."

But Lucas, who helped guide a young DeAndre Jordan through a similar evolution, is pushing Capela to develop an edge and a nasty streak, the next step in the building of the big man's confidence.

"I don't know any superstars that aren't kind of a jerk," Lucas said. "He is a poodle becoming a pit bull right in front of your eyes."