Thunder forward Mike Muscala paused mid-sentence, chuckled and warned that his upcoming response might get a little emotional. It had been a grind of a 72-game season, and when the eight-year veteran thought back over the season and his two years in Oklahoma City, his voice began to waver as one emotion washed over him – gratitude.
“Coming to OKC - I'm grateful for it, and it helped me a lot as a man and as a player,” Muscala said during his end of season interview. “I just feel like the organization's values and the fans here and everything, it just aligns with what I feel. It made it just really gratifying to come in every day and go to work and just have that to do when so many people were struggling with COVID and all that. Just even the opportunity to play basketball just meant a lot to me.”
During the offseason, the Thunder’s big man had even more reason to be grateful as the organization signed him to a multi-year contract to return to Oklahoma City the next season. It was a testament to the value he brought to the organization both on and off the floor throughout his two seasons in an OKC uniform.
“Obviously that's a big highlight for me,” Muscala said. “Super excited to get back to Oklahoma City, and really grateful for the opportunity.”
The 6-foot-10 forward was one of the Thunder’s lone veterans during the 2020-21 season. The floor-stretching big man averaged a career-high 9.7 points per contest in the first half of the season including a 23-point performance against Portland in January. In that game, Muscala sank a career-high six 3-pointers to help lift the Thunder to a three-point victory.
In the second half of the season, Muscala took a back seat in the rotation while the Thunder prioritized playing time to its young forwards. Although the veteran only played in one game following the All-Star Break, his value as a player extended beyond his play on the court.
With eight years of NBA experience under his belt, he knew what it meant to be a young player in need of playing time. He understood how it felt to be a new player getting accustomed to a new organization and city. He grasped the value of being a good teammate and he decided to use his dense catalogue of experiences to benefit the team even when he wasn’t in the game.
This all proved paramount as the Thunder navigated an unprecedented 2020-21 season with one of the youngest rosters in the league. While Muscala hadn’t necessarily endured a pandemic during his eight years, he had been a part of the Thunder organization long enough to provide a daily example of what Thunder culture and professionalism looked like – how to show up ready to work every single day regardless of circumstance.
“In a year like we had where there would be a lot of reasons to be pessimistic or point to things that weren't perfect, that wasn't happening. I give Mike a lot of credit for that,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti.
"The organization's values and the fans here just align with what I feel."
Muscala has had a lot of practice of taking things in stride throughout his basketball career. In 2013, Muscala was drafted by the Hawks midway through the second round but didn’t make his NBA debut until March of 2014. That’s because the Minnesota native spent the first half of the season overseas playing in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia for the ACB League in Spain. It rained six out of the seven days of the week, but it was Muscala’s first taste of professional basketball and once again, he approached the opportunity with gratitude.
“Thinking back on it – it was crazy, it was fun, it was challenging, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Muscala said.
When injuries took their toll on the Hawks’ roster midway through the 2013-14 season, Muscala received the call to return to Atlanta to suit up and not just be a part of the roster, but a member of the rotation. In his first-ever NBA game, the rookie forward hit the ground running logging 20 minutes of game action.
With that experience in his back pocket, Muscala leaned into the opportunity to help his younger teammates make the most of their own minutes of game action while he was on the sidelines during the 2020-21 season. He decided to take teammates like second year forward Isaiah Roby under his wing who was in the midst of his first full NBA season. When Roby had workouts throughout the season, Muscala was right there with him jumping in, offering pointers and helping him prepare for games.
“It was a good opportunity for me to try to see the game a little bit differently and maybe just mention some things to some guys, watch film in a different way than I had before,” said Muscala.
In April, Muscala’s unique experiences once again came in handy when the Thunder signed Argentinian wing Gabriel Deck to the roster. Muscala was there ready to dust off his Spanish degree and help embrace Deck into the organization. Muscala not only had Spanish in his back pocket to connect with the newcomer, but Deck also played in the same Spanish league where Mike began his career.
“It was cool to reminisce on some times in the ACB, and to bust out my very rusty Spanish here and there, just to talk with him a little bit and to welcome him to OKC,” said Muscala.
In two seasons, Muscala has not only become a strong member of the Thunder culture, but he’s also helped maintain its continuity in the midst of roster changes and adverse times. This alignment with the Thunder culture is why Muscala decided to stay in OKC during the offseason to work on his game. It’s why he was looking forward to his trip to Las Vegas for NBA Summer League to see his teammates and workout with the group. It’s why he got choked up during his end of season interview – he’s grateful to be a part of it all.
“I am tremendously grateful and very moved by the way he feels about the team and the organization,” said Presti. “I think he really connects with the vision that we have for what we stand for and how we try to operate on a day-to-day basis. We're not trying to be all things to all people, but there are going to be people that really thrive in this environment and enjoy it, and those are also the people that really help make it what it is.”