Mike Budenholzer, arguably the NBA’s top-rated coach, would like to see his former assistant, Kenny Atkinson, take a Knicks job he once pursued in 2018.
Preparing for the NBA restart as leader of the league-leading Bucks (53-12), Budenholzer paused from preparations at his Phoenix home to deliver a stirring endorsement of Atkinson, his former Hawks assistant.
Atkinson, axed in March by the Nets after turning around their franchise, is expected to receive an interview with the Knicks. Some feel the pride of Huntington, Long Island, could be a better fit than Tom Thibodeau. The Knicks still are considering bringing back interim coach Mike Miller.
“I’d love to see him be coach of the Knicks,” Budenholzer told The Post. “It’s a great opportunity. He understands he’ll have a bunch of opportunities and situations. He’s had an amazing life with a great family. It would be a home run for him. There’s nothing like coaching the team you grew up with, he worked with. And with what they’re trying to do and where they are.”
Atkinson, 53, weaved a 118-190 record in 3 ¹/₂ seasons as Nets coach, getting them back in the playoffs the past two seasons.
His critics say Atkinson is a stronger player-developmental guru than head coach. Budenholzer sees his versatility as making him special.
“He’s just interesting because he’s so unique in that he is so true to player development and can really help players improve,’’ Budenholzer said. “The league has gotten a lot better with [development], but he’s one of the first — his ability doing it at a super-high level.
“And that’s married with a guy who has a great feel for the entire sport — five-on-five, game concepts, defensively and offensively. He has a very rare high ability to execute being a good player-developmental coach. Some people are very good at that and they’re not interested in the team stuff, five-on-five. It doesn’t click as well. Kenny does everything.”
Reportedly, the Bulls have Atkinson on their radar, too. Like the Knicks, Chicago has seen some of its young players stagnate.
What makes Atkinson so good at getting players such as the Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Caris Levert to make massive strides? In Atkinson’s two seasons (2014-16) with Budenholzer, Atlanta compiled a 108-56 record.
“As a PD coach, I think he’s athletic and gets after it,’’ Budenholzer said. “He puts in his heart and soul and you can just feel it. You see how much he cares about you getting better and how much he cares about the concept of player development and improving. It’s just so real. It’s pretty impressive, especially when he’s a head coach. Including myself you shift away from that. As head coach in Brooklyn he hurts his hamstring, calf. He’s got a little bit of an edge — from Long Island. He’s willing to practice with them and mix it up and they respect him.’’
Atkinson won’t be coaching the Nets in Orlando because some players did not — with top candidates said to be starry 2019 free-agent trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan.
That led to accusations Atkinson doesn’t have the knack to coach stars. Ironically, Atkinson once said of Budenholzer: “What I learned from Mike is to really challenge the best players, be direct with them, coach them harder than you coach anybody else on the team. I do think it’s part of my personality.”
Budenholzer, incredibly passed over by the Knicks for David Fizdale, said Thursday he learned that from Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. And he can’t fathom Atkinson facing those charges.
“It’s totally unfair,’’ Budenholzer said. “For culture and accountability, you got to be willing to coach the best player. It is really important. We were lucky when we were together we had great ‘best players’ — high character who wanted to be coached. It was a perfect environment for [Atkinson] — to see that. Kenny has ability to coach any players, including the stars and best players in the league.”
When Budenholzer arrived in Atlanta in 2014, his instinct was to let Larry Drew’s assistant, Atkinson, go.
“We laugh about it now,’’ Budenholzer said. “I didn’t know Kenny at all. Danny Ferry was the GM and he was incredibly complimentary. So I said, ‘I got to check around and call a few people.’ I made a few phones calls to people I trust. He’s been around a lot of great coaches like Mike D’Antoni and Rick Adelman. They said you’d be an idiot not to keep this guy. I was close to being an idiot and I came to my senses. It was great luck for me.’’