Capela eager to make Hawks debut, but staying patient during rehab

Injured Hawks center Clint Capela gets up some shots during practice Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Video by Sarah K. Spencer)

Clint Capela is not content with his current situation.

The 25-year-old center has been battling a nagging right heel injury since late December, and it has relegated him to the sideline since the Hawks acquired him in a four-team trade deadline deal Feb. 5.

“I’m not here to sit on the bench and clap my hands,” Capela, officially diagnosed with a right calcaneus contusion and plantar fasciitis, said at practice Thursday. “My job is to go out there and play and be dominant, as dominant as I can (be). So when I don’t do that, it’s hard.”

The Hawks (19-44) are obviously hoping for the same thing — a starting-caliber, rim-running center who can rebound the ball and bolster the team's poor defense. But as Capela rehabs, it's looking more and more like that will come to fruition next season instead of this one (which might not be the worst thing, since the Hawks, looking to become a competitive, playoff-bound team, sit 14th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference standings).

Capela was cleared for impact activity Wednesday along with Skal Labissiere (left knee chondral injury). He said Feb. 9 at his introductory press conference that he hoped to play after the All-Star break, but didn't specify an exact date. In his first time speaking to the media since that day, he mentioned he's still waking up with a little bit of a limp.

“The past few days, it’s been pretty sore... I’m really trying to be really cautious about it, because it’s something that comes and goes,” Capela said. “I don’t get too excited when I feel good, because I know I’m having a lot of ups and downs.”

Capela is permitted to do conditioning and some basketball drills, and he was working on his mid-range shot at Thursday’s practice. He said his pain level has gone down since he was first injured, but it’s clearly still giving him trouble.

Both Capela and Labissiere will be re-evaluated March 18 and are guaranteed to miss at least six, possibly seven more games (the Hawks play Oklahoma City on the 18th).

After that date, the Hawks only have 12 games left. Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce pointed out Thursday that even if Capela is able to return and play in some games this year, he will be on a minute restriction and it will take some time to look like his old self.

“Both of these guys have been out of NBA basketball for a few months now,” Pierce said. “So really, when you get them on the court, everything will be a bonus, but I don’t know about the expectations. May be a little bit low just considering where they are right now. They’re barely moving in the drills they’re doing right now. I can’t imagine, when they get on the court, we’re going to expect this elite level. It’s just going to be basic level in terms of their conditioning and activity.”

When he was still with Houston, a playoff-bound team that’s No. 4 in the Western Conference standings, Capela was occasionally playing through his injury and would experience soreness, particularly in the second half of games.

Now, as eager as he is to make his debut, both the Hawks and Capela are taking a cautious approach. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy on him.

“I’m a basketball player, so I’m on the bench, pulling for my guys, but of course I want to be out there with them,” Capela said. “Go to war with them. And also the ability to cheer for my teammates on the court with them, also. That’s the most exciting part. But I know that I have to be patient right now. The team’s being really cautious and really trying to prepare to get me back 100% healthy.”

Capela said he hasn't been told it’s a possibility he’ll miss the rest of the season, but said the team is taking a day-by-day approach based on how he's feeling.

It would certainly be a plus for Capela to play minutes this year alongside some variation of the Hawks’ young core, all of which will return next year (Trae Young, Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins). But even then, it wouldn't be the most accurate picture of what the Hawks will look like next season with a (hopefully) full-strength Capela.

“We’ve got to protect Clint, still,” Pierce said. “There’s a greedy aspect of trying to do too much. We don’t want to do that, and that’s why we’re cautious. He’s just not quite there. I know what he is, and I know what he’s capable of doing. I would love to see it at 100%, fully conditioned. We’re not going to see that Clint this year. So what we’re going to see is a glimpse of where he is, positionally.”