Mike Budenholzer’s Arizona roots and Suns love instilled confidence in his craft

May 10, 2024, 10:12 AM | Updated: 11:47 am

Mike Budenholzer’s small-town roots in northeast Arizona helped him become the self-assured basketball coach he is now.

He grew up about 200 miles away from Footprint Center, where he will reportedly be coaching home games this season for the Phoenix Suns, in the town of Holbrook, which has 4,858 people as of 2020.

In the small town, Budenholzer grew up practicing on a concrete court in his backyard, trying legendary Suns moves from Walter Davis and Alvan Adams and listening to legendary broadcaster Al McCoy, according to a profile on azcentral from 2015.

His love affair with the game led him to Pomona College in California, a Division 3 school where San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich coached Budenholzer’s older brothers.

It was that tie to Popovich that eventually earned Budenholzer his first NBA job as a video coordinator, a call Budenholzer received while working a Lute Olson Basketball Camp in Tucson.

Budenholzer got his first head coaching job in 2013-14 with the Atlanta Hawks, where in his second season he became the first Arizonan to win NBA Coach of the Year. It was a 60-win effort that netted four of his five starters spots in the All-Star game.

After five seasons in Atlanta, he arrived in Milwaukee where helped the Bucks to a 60-win season in his first, when he again earned Coach of the Year honors. They won the championship in his third season over the Suns.

Bucks insider Eric Nehm from The Athletic joined Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta Mornings on Friday to clear up some misconceptions about Budenholzer.

“People always end up talking about his offense, and he came to prominence with the Atlanta Hawks when they started to run the five-out offense with Al Horford … and I think that was what people thought of a lot as he joined the Milwaukee Bucks and what people got excited about … while I do think Bud is great at organizing offense … what he’s been great at his whole career is defense.”

Offensive ratings under Budenholzer in Milwaukee finished fourth, eighth, fifth, third and 15th over his five seasons. Defensive ratings finished first, first, ninth, sixth and fourth.

Nehm also applauded the way Budenholzer demands authority from his stars, most notably Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee.

“There’s different ways of being a player’s coach in this league and one of them is whatever the superstar wants, you give them. That is not what Bud is,” Nehm said. “The way that he’s a player’s coach is really looking out for the player’s well-being and making sure that they’re put in the best position possible, and that leads to Bud being somewhat inelastic.

“He doesn’t want to have the conversation with you. He wants to tell you, this is what we’re gonna do and this is how we’re gonna do it and we’re gonna do it this way because that’s what’s going to be best for you.”

Antetokounmpo saw his minutes cut from 36.7 per game to 32.8 in Budenholzer’s first season, which frustrated the superstar. Nehm recounted asking Antetokounmpo about the frustration.

“It’s not an argument, he just says no,” Antetokounmpo told Nehm.

The results spoke for themselves, as his shooting percentage increased from 52.9% to 57.8% and he dished out a then-career-high 5.9 assists per game. He also won back-to-back MVP awards in Budenholzer’s first two seasons.

Budenholzer wouldn’t be as confident in his decision-making if he hadn’t already spent the time on concrete courts and in Division 3 gyms building up his expansive basketball knowledge. That time and preparation could prove key to fixing the Suns’ culture issues.

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Mike Budenholzer’s Arizona roots and Suns love instilled confidence in his craft