Story by KL ChouinardTwitter: @KLChouinard
Mike Muscala has become an integral part of the Atlanta Hawks' rotation this season. His most important strength may lie in the fact that he doesn't have a whole lot of weaknesses.
When asked what has clicked for Muscala this season, Head Coach Mike Budenholzer cited his versatility before launching into a laundry list of the things Muscala does well.
"He can play the 4 or the 5," Budenholzer said. "He can score in the paint. He can space the court, and shoot and make threes. He can pass as well. He protects the rim. He's a really good player."
Of those traits, perhaps shooting stands out as the most obvious one to the casual observer (although not just the casual ones). A very specialized observer, Kyle Korver, foreshadowed Muscala's improvement on Media Day. When asked about the overall quality of the Hawks' shooters this season, Korver named Muscala as a player to watch.
"He looks great," Korver said in September. "He did some tinkering with his shot and it looks really good."
Muscala has made a strikingly-impressive 45.5 of his three-point field-goal attempts and 58.6 percent of his two-point attempts this season. His three-point stroke has been particularly accurate of late. Over his last 11 games, Muscala has made 11 of 18 threes (61.1 percent). Even if he can't keep up that breakneck pace, Muscala has shown that his shooting ability will help the Hawks spread the floor, which in turn should help them to be more effective scoring around the basket.
Muscala said that the tweaks that he made in the summer involved working with assistant coach Ben Sullivan on his release point.
“I would cock it back too much and flick it forward as opposed to just going up and out," Muscala said. "Watching guys like Steph Curry, he is the epitome of that shot where it's more from the center of your body. It's maybe not necessarily as high of a release point because it’s just straight up and out, but it’s quick. It’s easy to repeat because there aren’t as many moving parts.”
Paul Millsap, who joined the Hawks shortly before Muscala did, attributed Muscala's success to a renewed sense of confidence.
"Confidence means a lot for Mike," Millsap said. "He has always been skilled and talented, but now, especially with Coach having trust in him to play major minutes, his confidence is high and he's been doing great for us."
Korver echoed Millsap's message.
"Him and Tim (Hardaway Jr.), they were here all summer," Korver said. "They really worked in the weight room. Our training staff is incredible at really not just putting on strength but learning how to use it: taking the weight room work and bringing it to the court. I think Muskie just feels more confident, and a lot of that is because his body is just stronger."
Korver said that physical strength has helped Muscala's other skills shine through while competing against some of the world's most accomplished athletes.
"He has always been skilled," Korver said. "He has always been great at getting the half roll and flipping it and seeing the other corner. He has always been a good shooter in practice. A lot of taking these talents that you have and taking them to the court is just about confidence. Sometimes just feeling stronger about your body does that."
One aspect of Muscala's play that needs to be mentioned is his ability to contest shots at the rim. Among the 64 players who had contested 100 or more shots at the rim this season (through games played Dec. 15), Muscala ranked 7th in field-goal percentage allowed, 43.1 percent, putting him among the league's best paint protectors.
The other talent that has made Muscala an indispensable player this season has been his ability to slip in and complement the Hawks' cornerstone big men, Millsap and Dwight Howard, despite their varying styles. Muscala said that his responsibilities differ when he shares the floor with each of them. When paired with Howard, who does his damage near the basket, Muscala tries to lure his opponent away from the basket using the threat of his shooting ability.
"It's important as the other big to be able to space the floor," Muscala said, "because if you don't, then my defender can guard him as well at the same time. You've got to be able to space it out and make them decide, and then that puts more pressure on the rim."
On the other hand, when Muscala shares the court with Millsap, his job description takes him all over the court as he plays off of Millsap's all-around moves.
"With Paul, he's still picking and popping a lot," Muscala said. "I'm trying to read him and play in the dunker area behind the basket and just make reads (while) working underneath the rim from block to block. And then spacing out when it's needed, too, because lot of times when teams switch, he'll post up."
Despite the versatility, and the numbers and the praise from his teammates, the final feather in Muscala's cap is simply an anecdotal one. He had arguably the best play of the season, and certainly the top one from the Hawks' most important win of the season. If you were tracking vote counts on Election Night and missed it, don't fret. Here it is.
Mike Muscala is pretty good at this whole basketball thing.