Mike Muscala's Road to OKC
Mike Muscala’s arrival in Santiago de Compostela, Spain was a bit unconventional.
Five television cameras awaited the then-22-year-old rookie as he stepped off the plane from the United States and was met with a series of questions and interview requests. English wasn’t an option; his major in Spanish at Bucknell University was all the prep he had. He dove headfirst into the semester abroad he never had the chance to take in undergrad.
Even in the midst of a four-year Division I basketball experience, education had always been at the forefront of Muscala’s mindset. Aside from the Bisons’ recent takedowns of Kansas and Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament during his childhood, the rigorous curriculum was the reason why the Minnesotan picked Bucknell.
“I really liked that they held us accountable there for that,” Muscala said.
During his time on the floor for the Bisons, Muscala became the school’s all-time leading scorer and led the team to the NCAA Tournament twice, but also battled with CJ McCollum’s Lehigh squads for the Patriot League championship every year. Each future NBA player's team won the league twice.
Bucknell is a small liberal arts college in Lewisburg, PA. Muscala identifies it as the town where Paulie in Goodfellas goes to prison – a minimum security joint where the convicts are permitted to cook their own food, with Italian meats, cheeses and vegetables dropped off daily. His fellow students call the college town the “Bucknell Bubble”. Even in the summers Muscala couldn’t escape it. He’d travel back from where he trained on Long Island to drop off papers and to take exams each weekend.
“You get really close with your teammates and your peers,” Muscala said.
A crucial selling point for Bucknell in Muscala’s mind was an assistant coach at the school who was from Minnesota and who visited him personally. A connection deeper than x’s and o’s or playing time was made. Minneapolis isn’t exactly a hotbed for recruiting, but there’s a unique basketball culture there. The winters are brutal, so kids pile indoors for either hockey or hoops. Muscala formed bonds on the court with friends and saw other Minnesotans like Joel Pryzbilla, Kris Humphries, Jon Leuer, Alan Anderson and Cole Aldrich make the pros.
Watch: Making Muscala
Despite the college success, Muscala was a second-round selection in 2013 and not guaranteed a roster spot with the Atlanta Hawks. That’s what prompted the sabbatical in Spain, where the towering American with a buzzcut surely stood out.
With some Spanish language skills in his back pocket though, Muscala embraced the culture and quickly settled in. He soaked up a basketball-first environment in the Galician city in the northwest corner of Spain, just above Portugal. There’s no professional soccer club in Santiago de Compostela, meaning his squad, Obradoiro, was the center of attention in town. The fans even sang a special hymn before each game.
The winters in Santiago were rainy – over 10 inches on average in the month of December alone, nearly double what falls in the United States’ Pacific Northwest. That gave Muscala a perfect, basketball-focused atmosphere to hone his craft. With precipitation on 5 or 6 days out of the week by Muscala’s account, all anyone was in the mood for was a workout in the morning, a nap set to the tune of drizzling rain, then a second training session in the evening.
After just five months and 20 games playing for Obradoiro, Muscala was abruptly called back to the United States. The team that drafted him, the Atlanta Hawks, were down to just seven healthy players and about to embark on a five-game west coast road trip, starting in Phoenix.
An hour before tip-off on March 2, 2014, after Muscala had traveled across the globe and his friends and family members snared last-minute flights to Arizona, the lean center craned down into his seat on the visitor’s bench. Catching his breath from his pregame shooting routine, Muscala heard then-Hawks assistant coach Darvin Ham say, “Well, you’re going to play about 25 minutes tonight.”
Twenty-four minutes into the game that night, the opposition Suns had scored 79 points.
“I was like, alright, welcome to the NBA,” Muscala chuckled.
The rookie chipped in four points, five rebounds and two blocks that night in Phoenix. More importantly though, he stuck around and got minutes in 20 out of the Hawks’ 24 remaining games that season.
One of the players on the floor with Muscala that first game, albeit for just 1:50, was current Thunder guard Dennis Schröder. The two young Hawks were a part of the same 2013 draft class for Atlanta. That was the same draft that fellow Thunder players Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and Nerlens Noel were all selected as well.
In the summers of 2013 and 2014 Muscala and Schröder trained together relentlessly, played in Summer League together and formed a tight bond, as tight as you can get in a league rife with near-constant player movement. In fact, Muscala was a part of the trade that brought Schröder to Oklahoma City, but was dealt to Philadelphia. He was a Sixer and a Los Angeles Laker last season. Now he’s reunited with Schröder in Oklahoma City.
“That’s the guy I’ve gotten closest to in my time in the NBA for sure,” Muscala said of Schröder. “I’m really glad to be back playing with him.”
The friends spent time together this summer even before coming to Oklahoma for training camp. Muscala attended Schröder’s wedding in Braunschweig, Germany in late July, making his first trip to the hometown that tested his point guard friend and sharpened him into a prodigy. As a statement of the forging powers of that crucible, the wedding was held in the arena where Schröder used to play as a young pro.
“It was pretty emotional. I was really happy for him,” Muscala said. “He’s like a brother to me.”
While Schröder began as a lightning-quick, defensive-minded pest on the perimeter, he’s developed into a more well-rounded attacking guard and last year with the Thunder, a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Meanwhile, Muscala reinvented himself too.
Through the first 120 games of his career over three seasons, Muscala attempted 64 total three-pointers and knocked down just 32.8 percent of them. Before the 2016-17 campaign, however, Muscala saw a Hawks assistant coach named Ben Sullivan burying three-pointers from several feet behind the NBA line, embarrassing all challengers in their practice facility.
“I said, ‘That’s the guy I want to work with on my shooting.’” Muscala recalled.
Muscala noticed the way spacing and shooting from the forward and center positions was evolving in the league and decided to go all-in on expanding his game. That summer was critical to his development into the player he is today and projects to be for the Thunder this year. In his fourth season in the NBA, 2016-17, he played 70 games, attempted 110 three-pointers and made a sensational 41.8 percent of them.
“It was just kind of like a focus for me. I saw the game trending that way a bit for the bigs being able to space the floor,” Muscala explained. “I guess I kind of just saw it as an opportunity.”
In 2017-18 Muscala had another solid year for Atlanta, shooting 37.1 percent from behind the arc, then averaged 7.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game in 64 total games for the Sixers and Lakers last season.
In July of 2019, another recruiter came calling to Minnesota. Muscala felt the love just like when he made his college decision, but this time from the Thunder front office. It was Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti. But even this new beginning came with an adventure.
Just days after Muscala signed, the Thunder traded for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and a plethora of draft picks, then later traded for three more picks plus Chris Paul. The roster overhaul in mid-churn, the Thunder gave Muscala an opportunity to keep his commitment or explore other options, but the veteran forward wanted to be in Oklahoma City. Just weeks ahead of training camp, Muscala is pleased with that choice.
“It’s been great. The whole staff here, the training staff, all the way to the chefs. It’s top notch,” Muscala said. “I’m super fortunate to be here. You just keep learning and growing. That’s the beauty of an NBA season, just taking it one day at a time and seeing that growth throughout the year.”
The big man will have to compete for playing time at the center and power forward spots. Adams and Gallinari likely will be in the starting frontcourt, with Noel returning to the reserve group. Rookie Darius Bazley can possibly play either forward position depending on his development. For Muscala this Thunder opportunity is more about fitting in with the group and playing off of one another.
“Everyone plays better in my experience when you’re just playing team ball, you’re moving the ball around, guys are touching the ball, feeling it, getting involved. You kind of just feel in a better rhythm,” Muscala said.
“That just comes from practice and from keeping each other accountable in that sense of playing good team ball and being unselfish,” Muscala continued. “That’s the most fun to watch when I see teams play that way, and the most fun to play. It’s a plus for everybody.”
That jives perfectly with what Billy Donovan and his staff aim for in the team’s game plan, and will give Muscala a great chance to be a factor night-in and night-out.