Clint Capela Has Steadied the Hawks in the Paint

Capela's defensive abilities adds tremendous value to this Hawks team
Clint Capela
Sarah Stier

Story by K.L. Chouinard (@KLChouinard)

Atlanta, GA-The last time the Atlanta Hawks had a breakout season, the biggest change that they made to the playing rotation was the addition of the first Swiss-born NBA player. 

Coming off a 38-win season that ended with a nail-biter of a first-round loss to the Indiana Pacers, the Hawks signed Thabo Sefolosha in the summer of 2014 to be their defensive ace off the bench. The Hawks had a number of pieces in place – Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll – and Sefolosha gave them a player capable of tackling any defensive assignment on the perimeter, no matter how difficult. With Sefolosha and a healthy Al Horford, the Hawks' defense made the leap from 15th (105.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) the prior season to 5th (102.3) in 2014-15 en route to a 60-win season.

Eight years earlier, when Sefolosha played his first NBA game with the Chicago Bulls, Clint Capela was a 13-year-old in Geneva, Switzerland trying to track Thabo's progress through the local newspaper. Upon Sefolosha acknowledging his retirement from the NBA this week, Capela talked about having a role model who made his basketball dreams seem possible.

"He was the only guy I could look up to (when I wanted) to get to the NBA. He was my own inspiration," Capela said. "I will always remember that. He was always a great guy who gave great advice – and he keeps giving great advice."

Capela got an extra bonus in Sefolosha's final NBA season.

"Our relationship really got close when we played for Houston last season,"  Capela said of shared meals and team road trips. "That's when I really got to know him and get closer to him."

Their paired season was cut short when the Hawks made a multi-team trade that brought Capela to Atlanta, and a heel injury kept Capela off the floor for the remainder of the season. Now healthy, the Hawks' turnaround for 2020-2021 closely tracks with the insertion of Capela and his strong interior play at the center position.

The Hawks finished last season 28th out of 30 teams in net rating (-7.1 points per 100 possessions), a ranking that has jumped to 10th (+1.7 points per 100 possessions) this season. A big reason for the improvement: the Hawks are no longer pushovers in the paint. Last season, their defense allowed a league-worst 53.6 points per game in the paint. This season, that number is a middle-of-the-pack 48.4 points per game. 

In addition to his defensive talents, head coach Nate McMillan noted that on the offensive side, Capela has done well setting the screens that free up his teammates, a job that often goes unheralded.

Capela sits at or near the top of the NBA in a number of categories, and those numbers speak for themselves.

  • Rebounds per game: 14.2 (1st)
  • Offensive rebounds per game: 4.8 (1st)
  • Blocks per game: 2.3 (3rd)
  • Dunks: 116 (3rd)
  • Field-goal percentage: 59.0 (10th)

Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy offered high praise for Capela's paint skills.

"There are a couple of ways to play center effectively in this league," Van Gundy said. "With him being a pick-and-roll finisher and offensive rebounder, and then he's a great pick-and-roll defender and shot blocker at the defensive end, I mean, he doesn't do a lot of different things, but what he does are very important things very well. Yeah, he's one of the best centers in the league; there's no question about that."

Centers who can anchor an NBA defense are uncommon. Those who can defend without taking things off the table on offense are rare. Capela fits into the latter category. In addition to his half-court talents as a roll man and glass crasher, Capela combines hustle and speed as a fast-break finisher in the full court. He simply outruns his opponents from point A to point B, and he has a point guard, Trae Young, who knows when he'll be at point B.

 In sum, Capela fills a role on the team that no one else can.

"(Clint) is the one guy that it would have a huge impact to lose on this roster, because he has done such a good job of defending the basket," head coach Nate McMillan said. 

Capela even had a recent streak of 13 consecutive made free throws. It's not the strongest part of his game: he is shooting 58.9 percent from the line this season. But he has also come a long, long way from the player who made 4 of 23 free throws in his rookie season, the same 2014-15 season that saw Sefolosha join the Hawks and win 60 games.

Sefolosha's perimeter defense helped him win a spot on one of the NBA's All-Defensive Teams in 2009-10. If Capela keeps defending Atlanta's paint as well as he has, he could easily keep following the footsteps that he began to pursue as a kid.

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