Budenholzer on incredible journey to All-Star bench

Leading to and through this weekend’s NBA All-Star game, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will profile the Hawks’ participants. Today: Mike Budenholzer

Leading to and through this weekend’s NBA All-Star game, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will profile the Hawks’ participants. Today: Mike Budenholzer

Mike Budenholzer at a Drake concert?

Yes, and that’s when Jeff Teague really knew his new head coach was all right.

Teague attended a concert by the musician at Philips Arena. He was surprised by who he saw in the audience — the Hawks’ head coach and family there enjoying the show.

“I was shocked,” Teague said. “I knew he was a cool guy then. Just to see him enjoying time with his family. It was a different vibe. It was cool to see him having a good time.”

The fact that such a detail was made public makes Budenholzer uncomfortable. However, it is a part of what endears him to his players. The coach admitted only to being at the concert. “I have a lot of respect for artists, especially Drake, who bring it every night,” he said. Yet he declined to provide further information, such as his favorite Drake song, preferring such details “stay in the family.”

Budenholzer has helped create an inner circle within the Hawks organization that includes coaches and staff with the emphasis on the players. Not many get to see inside. The players have responded. In just his second season at the helm, the Hawks entered the All-Star break with a 43-11 record, the best in the Eastern Conference by 6 1/2 games. Budenholzer and his staff will coach the East squad in Sunday’s All-Star game at Madison Square Garden, a team represented by four of his players.

“I don’t think he lets that side show,” said Al Horford, making his third All-Star appearance. “He’s really focused on talking about the team and on us getting better. That’s almost his whole mindset. He just wants us to keep improving each game. That is his focus.

“He is hard on us, but he does have that other side where he will come in and joke around or put an arm around somebody if he’s sees they are down. It’s rare for an NBA coach to put an arm around you, talk to you and ask you how your family is doing. I feel like he understands that we are not only players. He understands everything off the court. He takes that into account.”

Budenholzer has elevated his players. Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague all became All-Stars under his watch. Horford has returned to All-Star form after injury.

The 45-year-old Budenholzer has come a long way from the video-assistant role he took with the Spurs 20-plus years ago at the insistence of Gregg Popovich. He worked countless hours breaking down video, preparing teaching aides and eating at Bill Miller BBQ, just across the street from the Alamodome.

During the long hours, he was preparing to become a head coach. After 19 seasons, in which he worked his way up to Popovich’s lead assistant, Budenholzer left for the Hawks in 2013. He guided them to the playoffs in his first season, an eighth seed after losing Horford to injury 29 games into the season. The Hawks nearly knocked off the top-seeded Pacers in the first round.

This season has been more than anyone imagined — almost magical. Franchise records have fallen time and again. A highlight being the record 19-game win streak, part of an undefeated January.

“I’ve said it a lot of times, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t start in the film room,” Budenholzer said. “I think it is invaluable experience. It trains your eye. You are trained to see all 10 guys. Where is the spacing? What are they supposed to be doing? To learn to see the whole court and not just follow the ball and really appreciate what all 10 guys are doing offensively and defensively, I think film guys may be get that training more so than anybody.”

“And so organizing my thoughts, my way of thinking, how to present, how players learn, in a short time hopefully get teaching points across, it’s a huge part of who I am today. As an assistant coach, I continued to put a lot of time, effort and work into the film. As a head coach, we do a fair amount of film. It’s invaluable to our players. It’s a great teaching tool. The attention to detail is something I think I learned in the film room.”

Budenholzer is asked — often — about his training in San Antonio under Popovich. The Hawks have been called San Antonio East and San Atlanta as references to the Spurs’ system. The Hawks’ success is more than just a system.

“Bud’s got his own mind,” his mentor Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News. “We all pick up things from people we worked with. We’re all a bunch of stealers in this business. You see something you like and you take it. I’ve done it. Everybody does it. But be assured Bud’s got his own stamp on what he’s doing.”

That style is working wonders in Atlanta.