The 2017-2018 NBA season wasn’t overly kind to the Atlanta Hawks but that didn’t stop several players from taking individual steps forward and veteran big man Mike Muscala was among them. Though Muscala’s season began in treacherous fashion with early struggles and a lengthy absence after an ankle injury, the 26-year-old emerged down the stretch and turned in arguably the best campaign of his still-young career.
Prior to the campaign, Muscala hit the unrestricted free agent market for the first time in his career and, if anything, it was mildly surprising that he returned on a two-year, $10 million contract that included a second-year player option. Though that was (easily) the largest sum Muscala had been paid in his tenure with the Hawks, the tight market on big men seemingly squeezed him and Atlanta ended up with a bargain as a result.
However, the early portion of the season saw Muscala scuffling a bit. In the first nine games (including five starts), he shot just 41.2 percent from the floor and 31.6 percent from three, appearing less than comfortable and playing almost exclusively power forward. Then, borderline disaster struck.
Muscala was ruled out for Atlanta’s game on Nov. 4 in Cleveland and, while there was no indication that a lengthy absence was in the works at that time, it materialized nonetheless. In fact, the former Bucknell star would not return to game action at the NBA level until Jan. 5, spending more than two months on the sideline.
“It was a challenge for me coming back from an ankle injury that was over two months being out,” Muscala indicated at exit interviews in mid-April. “I feel good now and I feel like my body’s at a good place heading into the off-season. It’ll be the longest off-season I’ve ever had, so trying to take advantage of it and find the positives of being off earlier this year.”
From the moment he returned, though, Muscala was a different player and, frankly, was the best version of himself that the Hawks have been able to deploy. Overall the final 44 games of the season, Muscala connected on 38 percent of his three-point attempts (on increased volume), moved well defensively, and rebounded at the best rate of his career.
In total, Muscala turned in the second-best defensive rebound rate (18.3 percent) of his career and that mark was only exceeded during (very) brief stints as a rookie. Beyond that, he posted an impressive 59.7 percent true shooting that was heavily buoyed by his aggressiveness as a three-point marksman (53.5 percent of his attempts came from long range) and that was a clear strategic emphasis.
”I feel good about it,” Muscala indicated when prompted about his shooting over the course of the full season. “The last few games didn’t go well for me shooting-wise. I was able to take more threes this year. That was a goal of mine was to take more (threes) that were slightly contested, if you will, that are still the right shots to take within the offence and that’s something I struggled with last year. I feel like I made good progress in that department and I’m excited for this summer to hopefully make more in those situations.”
Because Muscala isn’t an uber-traditional big man with back-to-the-basket presence or imposing defensive traits, his best course of action is to magnify is strengths, headlined by his perimeter shooting. While his raw percentages (46 percent from the floor and 37 percent from three) actually dropped from the previous campaign, Muscala was able to stabilize his overall efficiency by simply attempting more threes (and shooting better at the free throw line), which could provide a window into the future with regard to his value.
Defensively, Muscala is perpetually underrated. Undeniably, there are certain match-ups in which he is at a disadvantage given his relative lack of burst and strength as a center but his positional versatility aids in making things easier with lineup construction and the uptick in his protection of the defensive glass was highly encouraging. Muscala will likely never be a full-blown impact player on that end of the floor but, in the same breath, he takes very little off the table and that is worthy of note.
With five years of evidence, it is likely fair to point out that the current version of Mike Muscala might be the best version. There will likely be tweaks here and there (with an example being the three-point emphasis) but, in short, he has proven to be a highly valuable role player capable of playing both big man positions (with the right partner) and Muscala would be a rotation player for the vast majority of teams in the league today.
Still, there is much he wants to improve on and he was vocal about that at recent exit interviews. ”Honestly what comes to mind for me is to just be a better basketball player all-around,” Muscala said. “Defensively… and I want to work on my ball handling a little bit where I’m able to bring the ball up in some cases. Playing with guys like Al Horford who was able to do that: get the rebound, start the break. It’s hard for teams to match up when you do that.”
“I think just all-around, and I think by doing that my shot -- which I tend to over-analyze sometimes when it’s not going my way -- I think it will just flow better for me. So I think my focus this summer will just be to (get better) all-around, get a lot of pickup game in, be here a lot in Atlanta working out with the guys and just getting that chemistry going and I think it’ll just come to me.”
Muscala declared that it was “still too early” to evaluate the $5 million player option he is afforded for the 2018-2019 season and he might be right. With that said, options for both Muscala and Dewayne Dedmon will go a long way toward instructing the offseason plans for Travis Schlenk in the frontcourt and, unlike Dedmon, Muscala has been a Hawks “lifer” to this point in that he may provide something of an advantage to Atlanta in re-signing, even if he chooses to decline the $5 million guaranteed option.
The Hawks unearthed an absolute gem with the No. 44 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and, almost five calendar years later, Muscala is still returning big-time value with that investment. Now, all eyes turn to his contractual decision and, if he chooses to opt out, unrestricted free agency will arrive for the second time in as many years.