Mike Check

Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports

Hawks player preview: Mike Muscala


The Hawks are set to begin training camp on Sept. 26. I'm previewing one player each day leading up to camp (in alphabetical order).

Mike Muscala

Position: C-PF

Height/Weight: 6-11, 240

Age: 26 (7/1/91)

2017-18 salary: $5 million

CARMELO projected value: minus $5.7 million

How acquired: 2017 free agent (re-signed)

OFFENSE

Muscala became a regular part of the rotation for the first time in 2016-17 and established himself as a legitimate “stretch” big man. He took three-pointers at a career-high rate (32.6) and made them at a career-best percentage (41.8).

Muscala’s 59.6 true shooting percentage ranked 26th among bigs who played at least 500 minutes last season. However, among that group Muscala scored 12.7 points per 36 minutes, ranking only 57th , which suggests the Hawks could benefit from giving Muscala a bigger offensive role this season.

Shifting his offensive game to the perimeter meant Muscala’s free-throw attempt rate decreased significantly (and he’s an excellent shooter from the line). But he shot 3-pointers so well that the trade-off was more than worth it. He also increased his assist percentage and kept his turnover rate low.

Pick-and-rolls and spot-ups accounted for nearly half of the possessions Muscala used in 2016-17. Muscala said he’s working on improving on his ability to take it to the basket against over-aggressive close-outs and refining his post game. According to NBA.com advanced stats Muscala scored 1.13 points per possession on 67 “cut” play types last season, raking in the bottom third in efficiency among players with at least 60 such possessions, and he used only eight post-up possessions last season.

DEFENSE

Muscala is a not an elite rim protector or rebounder but he uses his size and strength to be above average at both.

Muscala’s 2.8 block percentage and 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes over the past two seasons both rank 83rd among bigs who played at least 1,000 minutes. In addition, Muscala’s 0.83 points per possession allowed as a post-up defender last season ranked 44th among players who defended at least 50 such possessions.

Muscala performed about average as the defender against roll men (0.92 PPP on 62 possessions). He was below average against isolation plays (0.98 PPP) in large part because he fouled shooters on 18.8 percent of those 48 possessions.

FiveThirtyEight.com’s defensive metric, which is a combination of Real Plus-Minus and Box Plus/Minus averaged over three years, gives Muscala +0.5 per 100 possessions. It predicts he will maintain that level this season.

OUTLOOK

It will be interesting to see how coach Mike Budenholzer distributes minutes among his frontcourt players this season. Center Miles Plumlee, acquired in the Dwight Howard trade, appears to be the odd man out but there are five other options.

Muscala can play both positions and he is among a group that includes a pure center ( Dewayne Dedmon ), a pure power forward ( Ersan Ilyasova ), a small-ball four ( Luke Babbitt ) and first-round draft pick John Collins , who projects as a four. The best option might be pairing Muscala with Dedmon, who is a good post scorer, paint defender and roll man.

Muscala has become a more reliable outside shooter than Ilyasova and he’s probably the better all-around defender (plus Muscala, unlike Ilyasova, might have a future with the Hawks beyond this season). Starting also would give Muscala more minutes with point guard Dennis Schroder, which likely would result in more pick-and-roll opportunities.

In any case, Muscala is likely to play more minutes and have a larger offensive role than last season because Howard and Paul Milsap are gone and the Hawks need shooters on the floor.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. He is the author of the AJC’s Mike Check blog.