Story by KL Chouinard
A couple of seasons ago, expert NBA podcaster Nate Duncan coined the phrase ‘Hawks University’ to refer to the franchise and some of its small forwards and shooting guards. The underlying subtext was that the Hawks showed a knack for bringing in young, underrated wings (think DeMarre Carroll or Kent Bazemore) who were willing to work at developing the skills most needed to play in the modern NBA. Those players honed their three-point shots, mastered the quick reads that result in good defensive rotations, and practiced moving the ball to open shooters.
Mike Muscala, who the Hawks recently brought back, is the embodiment of all these traits…except he doesn’t play on the wing. If ‘Hawks University’ is a metaphorical institution worth discussing, Muscala is an alumnus for sure, but the recently re-signed forward would also have to be the first grad from a newly-established major: inside-out big man.
“Mike is a valuable player for us and a great fit both on and off the floor,” General Manager Travis Schlenk said of the signing in a written statement. “He’s worked hard and improved each year, and we’re very happy he’ll continue his career with the Hawks.”
The Hawks should be excited to keep Muscala with the team. He was one of just six NBA players last season to make more than 25 three-point shots while shooting over 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. Of the interior players on the list, Muscala is youngest and arguably the most agile defender.
Muscala said he was happy to stay with the Hawks.
“It was my first free agent experience, so it was different for me,” the 26-year-old said. “I’m really excited to be back to Atlanta. This is obviously where I started and where my fiancée is from, so we’re excited to be back.”
Muscala said that he is working this summer to improve in a number of areas, including continued work on his three-point shot. Some of his summer goals align with being more of a focal point of the offense.
“(I want to be) able to get to more shots in more one-on-one settings, whether that is in the post or driving from the perimeter,” Muscala said. “And be able to do more than just hit the open shot or that one-move shot, and have one or two or three moves, not just to score necessarily, but to be able to pass off of that too.”
Muscala said that he plans to spend some time this month in Minnesota before returning to Atlanta in a few weeks.
“We’ll be back here in Atlanta at the end of August pretty much all the way through open gym in September and then into training camp when it’s full ‘go’ time.”
Muscala recognizes that he is coming back to a changed team, one whose roster currently has as many players younger than him (six) as it does players who are older than him.
“It is going to be different. It’s exciting,” he said. “Obviously, (it’s) a younger team this year, but I’m excited for the opportunity: Just being back in Atlanta and being back with Coach Bud and the teammates that are back.”
Muscala figures to pair well with his younger teammates, and not just because he stands as a testament to the ‘Hawks University’ model. His passing should help get them the ball in the right spots, his shooting ability spaces the floor to create driving lanes, and his defensive versatility should keep them in games as they learn how to close out wins. All in all, Muscala is a well-balanced basketball player. He doesn’t have a lot of obvious weaknesses, which makes him an ideal cog as the Hawks try to put together a smooth-running machine around him and a mix of veterans and youngsters.
If those same young players take inspiration from the ways in which Muscala has improved since the Hawks acquired him from Dallas in the 2013 Draft, and if they approach their formative years in the same way that he takes to his ‘post-graduate’ studies, then the Hawks will surely be glad to reap that bonus as well.