Clint Capela revitalizing Hawks rebounding efforts

Not long after Lloyd Pierce subbed Clint Capela out in the fourth quarter, Capela asked him if he could get back in the game.

Capela was about four minutes under the 24-to-25 minute restriction Pierce had assigned everyone, but he decided to keep the center, making his debut in a Hawks jersey and playing in his first NBA setting since Jan. 29, out for the final stretch of the game.

“We can’t get it all back in one day,” Pierce said.

Most of the returning Hawks players haven’t played since March 11, but Capela has been out even longer, bothered by a nagging heel injury until he eventually started feeling better this summer. He’s now fully healthy, but it will take a while for him to get back in game shape. In just 20 minutes, though, he already helped alleviate the Hawks’ rebounding woes.

Capela finished with 14 rebounds (nine defensive, five offensive) in a smaller amount of playing time than he’ll normally get, and helped the Hawks out-rebound the Magic, 61-49.

“Tremendous,” Pierce said. “That’s one of those things that you know is an area of concern. … And that’s going to be big for us. That’s going to be really big for us because we can teach him some of our thoughts on what we like to do when we get offensive rebounds, to create extra possessions and extra opportunities, it’s going to be huge.”

It’s particularly encouraging to see that from Capela, Pierce added, when he’s nowhere near his maximum potential or conditioning level.

Statistically, the Hawks spent much of last season near the bottom of the NBA in rebounding. They got a little better once John Collins returned from suspension in late December, finishing 23rd in total rebounds per game (43.3), 23rd in defensive rebounding (33.4) and 19th in offensive rebounding (9.9).

Because the Hawks searched for answers at center most of the season, with Alex Len struggling on offense to start the season, Damian Jones underperforming, Bruno Fernando slowly learning the ropes as a rookie and Dewayne Dedmon playing in only 10 games, Collins often slid over to center. He still played some center in Friday’s loss, though maybe a bit more than he normally will this season, given that rookie center Onyeka Okongwu is still recovering from a stress fracture in his left foot.

Capela provides a significant upgrade from last season’s situation, and his presence allows Collins to slide back to power forward and gives the Hawks another strong rebounding presence (Collins led the team in rebounding last season with 10.1 and had nine Friday).

“I think it will definitely impact our game. ... By being aggressive on the glass, I’ll be able to put it back or find open shots,” Capela said. “We’ve got great shooters, so I’ll also look for that, and it’s going to really help us.”

The 26-year-old also gives the Hawks an experienced, vocal defender to help the team get organized on that end of the floor.

“As soon as he steps on the court, he adds a defensive presence,” Collins said. “His rebounding, his experience. Clint’s not a quiet guy on the court, he’s trying to direct traffic and lead and let guys know where they are, so I feel like that’s very valuable in the long term.”

Capela didn’t have the flashiest offensive performance Friday. He went 4-for-6 from the field, adding eight points, and missed the one free throw he took, adding two turnovers.

Pierce expects him to look a little smoother and quicker once his conditioning improves.

“We know what we have and we all are excited to see that,” Pierce said. “Once he does get his legs, he’ll be able to finish a little bit better, he’ll be able to get up the floor a little bit better and that’s just going to open up more shot opportunities for other guys.”

For Capela, it’s good to get his first game back out of the way, even if it’s just an exhibition game, as he continues to learn his new teammates (both the actual new arrivals, and the new teammates who he’s been around for months but just now got the opportunity to play with against other groups).

“After nine months, I needed it and I’m sure the whole team needed it, but I would say needed it even more because it’s with a new team, new rhythm and I felt pretty good,” Capela said. “I’m really happy to have that now and I can focus on what’s next.”