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Roseville’s Muscala faces off against the Timberwolves for the first time

The former high school star may not play much at Target Center, but a rookie season moving from Spain to the Atlanta Hawks is already a success.

Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, left, drives to the basket past Atlanta Hawks center Mike Muscala, right, at the Moda Center on March 5.
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Roseville’s Mike Muscala is holding on by the tips of his fingernails to the NBA’s fringe.

The top-down view of where the 6-11, 240-pound forward-center stands? He’ll be in uniform when Atlanta comes to the Target Center to play the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night. But unless his teammates incur foul trouble or the score is lopsided late in the game, no one should expect Muscala to perform much of anything but mop-up duty in his return home to Minnesota (where he was a high school Mr. Basketball finalist in 2009).

The Atlanta Hawks drafted Muscala 44th overall in last summer’s second round. He spent most of the 2013-14 NBA season in Spain, logging just 71 minutes in nine games since the Hawks bought out his contract last month. Atlanta was desperate to bring Muscala back after suffering a slew of injuries to various big men.

If you look from the bottom up, we see a kid who has always had those fingernails clinging to the next rung on the ladder, taking an against-the-odds climb from Roseville to Bucknell University to Rio Natura Monbus Obradoiro to the Hawks.

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According to the salary-savvy website, Muscala is guaranteed $161,141 for his services this season and at least half of his $816,482 salary next season. That’s a peon’s wages by NBA standards, but a handsome real-world figure, especially when added to his Spanish earnings from Monbus Obradoiro.

If Muscala sticks with the Hawks, he will be owed $2.95 million over the next three years, again per Even for an Academic All-American who majored in Business Administration, that’s auspicious remuneration.

And if past history is any indication, Muscala will find a way to make himself useful and reap those paydays. As the trainer who worked him out before last year’s draft told Sports Illustrated, “He’s going to will his way into a rotation and not make mistakes. There’s no doubt he’ll have an eight or 10-year NBA career.”

I caught up with Muscala over the phone last week for this Q&A.

MinnPost: You shoot really well from outside for someone nearly seven feet tall. Were you always the big kid at school?

Mike Muscala: No, when I was in 9th and 10th grade, I played the 3 [small forward] spot. I was about 6-1 as a freshman and 6-4 as a sophomore. When I graduated high school I was about 6-9 and a little over 6-10 by the time I started at Bucknell. [Not always being tall] helped me become more of an inside-out player.

MP: How did you wind up at Bucknell?

MM: Well, I wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school. The assistant coach there, Dane Fischer, is from Minnesota and saw me play on the AAU circuit and gave me a call. I had my unofficial visit there in August before my senior year and could definitely tell it was the place for me. Lewisburg is a classic college town in central Pennsylvania — they call it the Bucknell bubble. It is a great liberal arts university, we played basketball at a high level and I got a great education. I studied business management and Spanish. I always liked Spanish after I went to Mexico with my family one year and rather than random electives, I took Spanish classes.

MP: When did you first allow yourself to think you might have a chance to play in the NBA?

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MM: After my junior year, I went to this pre-draft thing. It was a confidence-builder because I played against guys I had heard about or seen [from more prestigious college programs]. And there were agents around and stuff.

MP: After four years in school you were drafted. You were officially drafted by Dallas but then immediately traded to Atlanta. Any forewarning which team would take you? 

MM: I knew Atlanta liked me because I worked out for them twice. It’s funny, I did about 15 workouts and I knew Atlanta liked me and I really wanted to do well and my first workout with them was probably the worst one I had. Then I came back and did my last workout with them and it was probably the best one of the whole journey. And I met Atlanta’s staff at the draft combine. Atlanta and Sacramento were the only two teams to interview me.

MP: There are some parallels between your style of play and the way Atlanta’s general manager, Danny Ferry, used to play. I’ve heard he was very influential in the Hawks being interested in you.

MM: He was at both of my workouts. We’ve talked several times since then. He was around when I was working out after summer league and he came to Spain to watch me.

MP: What kind of advice did he give you? [Note: Ferry was willing to talk with me for this story, but connections fell through before the deadline.]

MM: Just little things. In terms of my body that I obviously needed to get bigger and stronger and just focus on adding little things to my game.

MP: How did you end up in Spain? 

MM: My agent told me a few teams were interested. [Monbus Obradoiro] saw tape of me and were fond of my game and when I saw they played once a week I thought that was great because it meant I could focus on my body, improve my flexibility and balance as well as getting stronger and getting rest. Just eating better and recovering after workouts, doing extra workouts. Peter [Vang, his manager and assistant] taped every game so I could go over the film and study it. They only play once a week so they were always high-pressure games.

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MP: What are the differences between basketball in college, in Spain and in the NBA?

MM: I think some of the offensive sets and the execution in Spain were new to me; the way teams pass the ball and the intelligence of the players. Obviously I was playing against much older players [compared to college], but I think it is really physical in Spain — it is in the NBA as well, but the refs control it more. There are a lot of tricks in terms of pushing and it was good for me to learn. We had a guy, Oriol Junyent, who is about 37 and used to play with the Spanish national team, a big strong guy with a lot of tricks who helped me.

MP: Sounds like a good overall experience. Your father told me the Spanish media really appreciated that you knew the language.

MM: Yeah, they appreciated that I tried to speak the language [laughs]. My mindset was that I would spend the entire year playing in Spain and learn as much as I could. I played the 5 [center] mostly and my role was to be a good rebounder and good finisher around the basket. The guards flashing in to the basket gave me good passes and I was able to knock down my midrange shot too.

MP: With your success and all of Atlanta’s injuries to big men, did you keep tabs on what was going on?

MM: It entered my mind, but I wanted to really focus on the season, so I was surprised when it actually came to fruition. My agent called me and said there was a possibility that Atlanta wanted to bring me back over. That was on a Thursday, near the trade deadline. It eventually happened on Sunday.

MP: Being offered a multi-year contract, even if only some of the money is guaranteed; is that a sign of faith in a second-round pick?

MM: Yeah, I suppose. Coming back from Spain I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I could be spending another year in Spain.

MP: How did it affect your attitude when it happened? 

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MM: I think whatever I got in terms of my situation with the Hawks I earned it. I played well in Spain. I always thought I was ready but I improved a lot in Spain. Now it is nice to be in the NBA and show what I can do.

MP: What aspects of your game have improved the most this season?

MM: My patience on the offensive end. Working with Peter, watching film, reading defenses. Players so much smarter at this level, they know your tendencies. You have moves in your arsenal, but you have to utilize them differently and take another step forward.

When I am patient on the offensive end I can read the defense and make the right play. I don’t always have to score. On defense, it is getting stronger. I think I am a good help defender and pick-and-roll defender and I need to get stronger and become a better post defender. 

MP: The three-point shot is important in the NBA and you shot well from outside in college. I know Atlanta doesn’t run a lot of that for their big men, but did you work on your three-point shooting in Spain?

MM: I didn’t work on it a ton but I did some. I think the NBA three-pointer is a much bigger adjustment [further away]. My midrange shot is good and now I am just trying to get my reps, especially working on the corner three pointer.

MP: Everybody always talks about the learning curve in the NBA. What has stood out for you?

MM: It is hard to sum up. It is a different game. The change of pace in the NBA is so important, and the players are so good at it. In college it is so fast all the time. In the NBA, it is full court running, but it is wise not to play crazy. The great players look to lull you to sleep and then have that quick burst of speed. That’s a big adjustment for me and it goes back to being patient. Everybody is bigger, longer, stronger and smarter too. It’s the highest level. 

MP: Is it hard not to get discouraged when you aren’t playing many minutes?

MM: No. I obviously want to play, but I know I came here past the halfway point of the season and I am really just trying to offer whatever I can to the team. Just trying to learn quickly and fit in with the different concepts. I’ve worked with the assistant coahes and they have been very helpful, even the strength guy and the trainer.

MP: Do you know what kind of player they want you to be?

MM: I haven’t thought of it that way. They know the player I am. I just want to get better.

MP: Let’s put it another way: Project yourself as a player, your strengths and what you need to work on.

MM: For me, I run the floor well, am a smart player on offense. I think I am a really good midrange shooter and offensive rebounder but I need to get better at post defense. I am in the post as a help-side shot blocker. I think in terms of my low-post scoring, as a presence, I am not where I want to right now but I’m confident with my touches I can be. At Bucknell, I had a good touch around the basket.

I need to work on my upper-body strength. I run really well for my height and I don’t need to put on a lot of unnecessary weight, but as I naturally mature I need to learn how to bang more. I need to use the tools I already have better. I have strong legs and I need to be able to sit low and get better balance in the paint.

MP: Is your basketball career already a success?

MM: [Laughs] That’s a tough question. For me, no. I am a competitor and that’s why I am able to be here in the first place. I want to prove I can play at a high level and I have goals for myself. It is a dream come true to play in the NBA, but I wouldn’t have made it this far if I didn’t want to accomplish more.