ATLANTA — It really hit Mike Muscala a few days ago when he was listening to the Nets’ starting lineup at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
When the public address announcer called out “from Farragut Academy … No. 2 … Kevin Garnett,” Muscala looked across the court and realized he was about to play on the same basketball court as one of the players he grew up idolizing.
“I grew up watching KG play all the time,” said Muscala, a native of Roseville, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. “That was about the only time I was star-struck so far.”
The “so far” Muscala — the all-time leading scorer in Bucknell basketball history — referred to is the first 20 games of his NBA career, which started mid-season and now will go into the playoffs. He kicked off his professional career in Spain, then the Atlanta Hawks bought out Muscala’s contract and he made his NBA debut March 2 in Phoenix, becoming the first Bucknell graduate to ever appear in an NBA game.
Thanks to a strong finish with six wins in eight games, the Hawks go into the playoffs with some confidence, Muscala said. Atlanta opens the postseason tonight against the Eastern Conference’s top seed, Indiana, a team the Hawks beat by 29 points two weeks ago. The opening-round series starts in Indiana. The game will be live on ESPN at 7 p.m.
“Obviously it’s going to be a challenge, it’s a tough matchup” said Muscala, who will turn 23 in July. “Indiana is a great team with a big physical front line. Guys like (Roy) Hibbert, David West are experienced and they have a great player in Paul George.”
Experience is key
It is difficult to imagine a tougher transition into the NBA than the one Muscala faced. The Hawks acquired his draft rights from Dallas, which drafted him 44th. After playing in the Las Vegas Summer League, Muscala opted to sign with Blusens Monbus Obradoiro in Spain.
After 20 games in Spain, where he was averaging 14.6 points and a league-best 7.8 rebounds, the Hawks bought out Muscala’s contract and brought him stateside after they were beset with injuries. “I fully expected to spend the whole season in Spain,” said Muscala. “When they called, it was a crazy couple of days. I packed my bags, flew to Atlanta, was here for a few days and then we had a five-game road trip out West.”
In his first game Muscala played 19 minutes, scoring four points and grabbing five boards in a loss at Phoenix. From there his role went back and forth.
Over a 10-game stretch from March 3 to March 24, he did not play more than 11 minutes. Then he had three games with at least 20 minutes, including a 24-minute run where he scored eight points in front of his friends and family in Minnesota.
“It was great to have all my friends and family with me,” said Muscala, who grew up watching the Timberwolves. “I’ve had a lot of support from my parents and friends and it was neat to have them all there.”
Muscala’s minutes dropped for another long stretch before he played 56 combined minutes in wins during the final two regular season games. In a win over Milwaukee on the final night of the season, Muscala hit 6-of-8 shots for a career-high 15 points.
In 20 games with the Hawks, Muscala is averaging 3.8 points and 2.6 rebounds.
“I am much more comfortable now than I was early on,” Muscala said. “It was tough at first because I was sort of thrown into it without a training camp or a lot of practice. They needed me because we had some injuries and I was able to help out.
“But the more I play, the more comfortable I get. There is no substitute for experience.”
A four-year starter at Bucknell, Muscala finished his career first on the school’s all-time scoring list (2,036 points), and second in rebounds (1,093) and blocks (271).
He was named the Patriot League Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, while also garnering First Team All-Patriot League and Associated Press Honorable Mention All-America honors, after averaging 18.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 2.3 assists.
He was a two-time Patriot League Player of the Year and led the Bison to three consecutive Patriot League regular-season titles and three postseason tournaments.