Shaq Buchanan was leaving the store when his phone rang this past January. It was his agent, Josh Goodwin. After weeks of speculation around proposed start dates, Buchanan finally had his answer. The NBA G League was going to have a season.
The league would play at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Fla. It was announced on January 8 that games would start some time in February. It wasn’t until January 27 that a February 10 start date was given, with each team playing 15 regular season games in 25 days.
🏀 Ready. Off to Orlando! pic.twitter.com/vXPQWqr2Wc
— Memphis Hustle (@MemphisHustle) January 27, 2021
“I was like ‘Whew,’ that kind of took me back to the AAU days, playing that many games in a short amount of time,” Buchanan said. “I was just happy to have a season because I was missing basketball since we were off for like a year.”
Basketball, at least at the professional level, was back for Buchanan. He had played with the Memphis Grizzlies during the NBA preseason in December 2020, and had been keeping in shape for whenever that call from Goodwin would come regarding the G League.
His next step?
Saying goodbye to who he calls his two best friends; his mother, Stephanie Latiker, and his daughter, Taylor Grace. Buchanan would end up being in the Orlando single-site from January 27 to March 6. He spent his 24th birthday there.
— Memphis Hustle (@MemphisHustle) January 30, 2021
“My daughter, when she found out I was going to Disney World, it was crazy,” Buchanan said. “She was just calling me everyday telling me she was ready to go to Disney World. I told her I would take her back out there. I just need a break from the campus right now because I’d been there too long.”
Buchanan’s decision to embark on such a makeshift season is just a microcosm of what sports — and really the world — has been through over the last year-plus: People leaving loved ones and the comfort of their own home to navigate through a pandemic. It’s been an exhausting time, and Buchanan’s experience gives an inside look at an opportunity in sports during it.
Though the upcoming season was certainly different, Buchanan wasn’t left dry of knowledge on what to expect going down to Orlando.
“I had a couple guys that were in the [NBA] bubble,” Buchanan said. “Ja [Morant], my former teammate (at Murray State and with the Grizzlies). Terrance Davis with the Raptors, he’s a Mississippi guy. I had a good handful of people in the NBA bubble and they told me what to expect, how to handle the situation and how to take advantage of it.”
Buchanan, only in his second year, was already considered a vet to a team that had seven rookies hit the floor this season. He and guard Ahmad Caver both broke into the league last season with the Hustle, while guard David Stockton was going into his sixth season (169 games) in the G League. Last year, Buchanan had teammates like Dusty Hannahs and Marquis Teague to learn from. This season, more than half the roster was looking up to these three.
“The main thing is having that vet on your team that can keep guys level-headed and just talk to them,” Buchanan said. “For rookies, I know it’s hard, especially going into a bubble your first season. I’m just in my second year but they were looking at me as a vet.”
Off the court, there was still only so much that protocol would allow players to do. The park was flagged off-limits. You couldn’t leave the single-site. And though the Mississippi native was able to channel his southern roots with a few fishing trips at the local pond, he says he didn’t catch a single thing.
What Buchanan had on the court, though, was his customized pair of Kyrie Irving’s signature Nike shoes. The shoes came a bit before last season came to a screeching halt, so it was finally time to show them off to his family back home watching.
“It was a kid on Instagram that asked me if I wanted a pair of customized Kyrie’s and I was like ‘sure,’ I told him what I wanted on them,” Buchanan said. “I wanted my mom’s name, my daughter’s name, and something to do with the Memphis Hustle. The grit and grind.”
Buchanan’s never been short of support and the constructive criticism that comes with it. During his March Madness run with Murray State in 2019, Stephanie was there. She was there in those days where Shaq and his younger brother Shaunn were “playing against one another on the goal in their yard,” too. So even with Shaq being away, Stephanie wasn’t shy of letting him know what’s up.
“My second game,” Buchanan said. “Because I had a good first game, then I kind of struggled the second game and it was a back-to-back. She would text me like ‘You ain’t do this, you ain’t do that. Here’s something you can do to help you.’ I was just listening to her…My mom, she’s been there every step of the way. She played, so she can relate to the game and I take pointers from her and listen to her talk when she sees something in my game.”
Buchanan averaged 12.9 points per-game (improving from 11.1 per-game last season) in 15 contests for the Hustle, who went 6-9 on the year. He scored in double-figures 12 times, something he only in 17 of 33 games last season. His free throw shooting (74.1%), rebounds (5.9), assists (1.7), and steals (1.5) per-game averages all went up, too.
oh my @ShaqLeroy
you tell 'em. watch ya head pic.twitter.com/dS074gUFKX
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) March 4, 2021
“Those two ladies (Stephanie and Taylor Grace), they are just my best friends,” Buchanan said. “They watch everything I do, especially my mom. My daughter, that’s my best friend. She looks up to me.”
Buchanan promised Taylor Grace he would take her to the store when he got home from Florida. He fulfilled it. Next is getting back to Disney World, only this time not on a business trip.
“I haven’t set a date,” Buchanan said. “But when I came back home she still remembered [the toys]. So I took her to the toy store and bought her a lot of toys. As of right now, I have no date of going back [to Disney], but I’ll be looking into that soon, though.”