All of which is meant to underscore a simple point: Look at him now.
Going into the weekend, Capela, now in his fourth season, was shooting a league-best 65.2 percent from the field while averaging 14 points and 10.9 rebounds in 27 minutes a game for Houston, which has set a franchise record for wins this season. The Rockets (64-15 entering the weekend) will be the No. 1 seed when the Western Conference playoffs start in a week.
“Knowing where I was four years ago and where I am now, I’m just embracing it,” Capela said in a recent interview here before a win against the Trail Blazers.
On a team led by long-range technicians like James Harden and Chris Paul, Capela, now 23, plies his trade in the immediate vicinity of the basket. Through the Rockets’ first 78 games, of his 655 field-goal attempts this season, only 13 had come from beyond nine feet, according to statistics compiled by the N.B.A. But the shots that he does take — a smorgasbord of layups, dunks and sweeping hooks — he tends to make.
Credit Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
The Rockets’ offense, to be clear, does not run through Capela. He uses his 6-foot-10 frame to collect offensive rebounds, score on putbacks and occasionally flash a Harden-esque Euro step on drives to the basket. He also defends, blocking 1.9 shots a game. He is a complementary piece, but an essential one, on a high-octane team.
“I’d like to say we’re geniuses on our picks,” Morey said, “but the reality is that he’s even better than what we expected.”
Morey got his first look at Capela during a scouting trip to Europe in 2014, when Capela was playing for Élan Chalon of the French league. Morey recalled that the team had a fun mascot: Scott the Moose. But he was also struck by how Capela ran the floor, set screens and rolled to the basket. He had unusual dexterity for a young man his size.
Growing up in Switzerland, Capela played soccer before switching to basketball at age 13. Out on the court in France, his fancy footwork showed.
Still, Morey harbored concerns. He described Capela’s defensive instincts at the time as “very raw” and his free throws as “a little bit of a question mark,” which was a diplomatic way of spinning his adventures at the line. But Morey felt that Capela’s room for growth outstripped the holes in his game. He cited Capela’s quickness as a defender.
“I always think the best bigs are the ones who can jump second when they go to block shots,” Morey said in a telephone interview from Spain, where he was on another scouting trip. “They don’t have to anticipate because they get off the ground so fast.”
The only problem was that the Rockets had the 25th pick in the 2014 N.B.A. Draft, and Morey doubted Capela would fall that far — at least until Capela had a nondescript performance ahead of the draft at the Nike Hoop Summit, a high-profile game for the best prospects in the world.
Capela, who said he had been looking forward to the game since he learned it existed, finished with 5 points in 14 minutes. His draft stock did not soar. The Rockets took advantage.
“It was probably the best thing that could have happened for us,” Morey said.
In his first season with Houston, Capela was not exactly a polished product. He missed all those free throws. He had greater success with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, for whom he actually made some shots. But the experience was generally overwhelming.
“It just took me time to get comfortable: a new country, a new team, a new system,” Capela said. “I was so impressed by everything — being in the N.B.A. I was just like, ‘Wow.’ ”
As if adjusting to the pace and the grand stage of the N.B.A. was not difficult enough, Capela moonlighted by studying for his driver’s license test with the help of one of the team’s security officers. They practiced in a parking lot near the Toyota Center. His exam was going well enough until Capela backed into a barrier when he tried to parallel park.
“Automatic fail,” Capela said.
He managed to pass on his second attempt, and that became a sort of personal theme: Momentary setbacks would not stop him.
Capela’s most consequential lessons began in July 2016, a few months before the start of his third season, when the Rockets hired John Lucas II, the former Houston guard, as their player development coach. One of Lucas’s first assignments was to recalibrate Capela’s shooting technique when the Rockets were in Las Vegas for summer league.
For three weeks, Capela set his alarm for 5 each morning so he could get to the gym with Lucas by 6. As a part of his new morning routine, Capela had to sink 250 free throws, which may not sound like the most arduous undertaking except that he had made only 84 of 234, or 35.9 percent, in his first two seasons.
“Trust me, it was tough,” Capela said. “Oh, my God.”
Capela would practice with the summer league team most afternoons before returning to the gym with Lucas each evening for another 250 makes from the foul line — and however many misses. It helped, Lucas said, that Capela was an enthusiastic student. He craved instruction. They continued their morning routine once they returned to Houston. (In an act of benevolence, Lucas moved the workouts to 8 a.m.)
“I told him that if he worked, he could be one of the best centers in the league,” Lucas said. “I believe that even more now. He’s just scratching the surface.”
Lucas went as far as to compare Capela to — wait for it — Hakeem Olajuwon, a former teammate who happens to be one of the greatest centers in the history of the league. Like Capela, Olajuwon played soccer when he was growing up. Like Capela, Olajuwon had nifty footwork. Like Capela, Olajuwon entered the league with massive potential.
But unlike Olajuwon, Capela is not a 12-time N.B.A. All-Star — not yet, anyway. If nothing else, Lucas wants Capela to aim high.
“There’s so much more to his game than what you see,” Lucas said.
For now, Capela is comfortable working within the confines of the Rockets’ guard-centric offense, and for good reason: Harden is the league’s likely Most Valuable Player, and Paul is a future Hall of Famer. Capela understands his role, he said, and wants to improve everything from his ball handling to his defense to his free throws, which remain a work in progress. (Entering the weekend, he was shooting 56.5 percent this season, up from 17.4 percent as a rookie.)
He even dreams of someday drifting out to the 3-point line.
“Sure, why not?” he said. “It’s not impossible.”
Not bad for a guy who, not so long ago, just wanted to make his first shot.