The freshman entered the game late, well after that afternoon’s result had been decided. He had the look of a basketball player, tall and strong, but plenty of good teams stock their benches with kids who look the part.
Now, they were beating up on Theodore Roosevelt in the league championship game. The freshman checked in almost as a flex, a sign the Tigers were done piling on and were ready to provide a preview of the future. Soon, the freshman caught the ball on a breakaway that only appears in blowouts, when nobody has the heart to chase. He sprinted to the foul line, threw the ball off the backboard and dunked.
The crowd at Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast Washington seemed almost confused in its delight. Who was this player, bold and talented enough to do that in a city title game?
On that Sunday afternoon in 2019, few knew Darren Buchanan Jr., but this much was clear: He could become one of the city’s biggest stars.
Fast-forward almost three years, and Buchanan is still hanging on the rim, this time after a casual, two-handed dunk to end a walk-through drill in the middle of preseason practice. His black-and-green Nikes dangle in the air.
It is two weeks before the first game of his senior season, the first he will play after a 21-month layoff, and he appears at ease in his home gym. The 6-foot-7 forward vacillates between comedian and competitor, playfully teasing his teammates in one moment and then taking the ball hard to the basket the next.
At one point he is called for a charge by an assistant coach — and Buchanan glares, stewing over the injustice. “You know it, Jun,” Tigers Coach David Johnson says to him. “You know it.” The beginnings of a smile appear on the senior’s face as he runs back on defense.
People well beyond this gym know who he is at this point. He has a reputation as the top unsigned senior and quite possibly the best public school player in the D.C. area. He has college interest from programs such as George Washington, Richmond and Virginia Tech.
Buchanan’s journey has been marked by many of the stressors that have come to define high school basketball in recent years: player movement, pandemic problems, recruiting headaches. In some ways, his high school experience is an amalgam of how the game has changed and will continue to change.
But right now, sitting in the bleachers in the afterglow of a good workout, Buchanan thinks only about all of the basketball in his future.
“I just want to have fun this year,” he says, a basketball still in his hands. “Have fun and win. That’s it.”
This past summer, Buchanan was standing in line, chatting with friends at the Tenleytown McDonald’s, when a random teenager approached.
“Are you transferring from Wilson?” the kid asked. “I heard you were leaving.”
Buchanan asked the teen where he heard that rumor and assured him it wasn’t true. Buchanan had grown used to the speculation, but that doesn’t mean he was comfortable with it.
“There have been people telling me since my freshman year that I shouldn’t be at Wilson,” Buchanan said. “It’s just strange to me, because Wilson had a tremendous history before I got here. Why wouldn’t I want to be here?”
High school basketball has started to resemble the minor league baseball system. Once a player is good enough, he receives opportunities to jump a level. Stars from public schools get calls from local private schools. Private school playmakers are approached by national programs such as IMG Academy (Fla.) or Oak Hill (Va.). Top prospects from national programs are offered moneymaking opportunities overseas or in upstart ventures such as the Overtime Elite league.
There is always a coach on the phone with advice about what’s best for your basketball career. Those calls started as soon as Buchanan generated buzz in limited minutes as a freshman — and they intensified the following offseason, when it appeared Wilson would lose several key players.
But Buchanan’s parents always emphasized loyalty, and their son started to value it. He had built a strong relationship with Wilson’s head coach, Angelo Hernandez, and the rest of the Tigers’ staff since middle school. And his sophomore season would be a chance to step up and become a leader for the Tigers. So he stayed.
“He loves this city,” said Hernandez, now the athletic director at Digital Pioneers Academy in Southeast Washington. “And he loves to put on for this city. He represents it all the time. Especially when we used to go out of town and play, he always had that chip on his shoulder.”
A week after the season ended, the coronavirus pandemic shut down high school sports. As the months stretched on and a new school year approached, local player movement picked up as athletes scrambled for their best chance to have a winter season. Again, Buchanan’s phone rang. Again, he stayed.
The Tigers did not have a season last year; D.C. Public Schools deemed winter sports too risky. So Buchanan turned his attention to his senior year, one last ride with the Tigers.
In July, his loyalty was put to the test when Hernandez called. The coach received an offer to become the athletic director at Dunbar (a job he would leave for Digital Pioneers Academy in November), and he took it. Hernandez posted the news of his departure on Twitter a few days later. Less than a half-hour after that post, Buchanan’s phone rang again.
“That time, of course I was looking at other options, because we didn’t have a head coach at the time, but 75 percent of me didn’t even want to do that,” Buchanan said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere.”
There was internal momentum, from Buchanan and his teammates, for Johnson to get the job. He was young and smart, knew the players and the culture. He could build on everything that had been created during Hernandez’s tenure. Johnson got an interview, and before he drove to Wilson that afternoon, he gave Buchanan a call.
“I’m going to get this job, and then we’re going to go to work,” he told him.
Choosing the right high school is one thing, but finding the perfect college is another challenge completely. The pandemic and new transfer rules have altered recruiting, leaving many prospects feeling overlooked and desperate for an opportunity.
Despite a strong start to his Wilson career, Buchanan had garnered tepid college interest by the time the coronavirus started to spread in the United States. On his first day home from school that spring, he called Hernandez with a simple question: “What are we going to do?”
Hernandez told him to stay patient — his recognition would come as it had for other Tigers. Wilson is one of the few public school programs in the area that has consistently produced Division I players in recent years.
But Buchanan had no proof of that fact as he started what would be a long year at home. He worked out solo, trying to keep his game sharp. He took out his competitive energy on fiery Uno games with his brother, Darrius. He waited for colleges to see his tape and call his phone.
“There was a day early on that I cried,” Buchanan said. “I cried because I wasn’t able to do anything, and I felt like I was wasting time.”
In May, he got his first scholarship offer from Bryant, a small program in Rhode Island, and he cried some more. This was the beginning, his parents told him. Keep working, and you will earn what every prospect wants: options.
June 15 is the biggest day in basketball recruiting — it is the first time coaches can contact rising juniors. Buchanan hoped it would bring a flurry of offers, and he spent the night before talking with some of his Team Durant AAU teammates about the possibilities. As they played video games, they speculated what schools might call when the clock hit midnight.
Buchanan had spent most of his AAU career surrounded by private school players, and he watched as they soaked up accolades and offers. Around midnight, his teammates started to pause the game again and again as they stepped away to field calls from Power Five programs.
By 12:15, Buchanan got nervous. Had he made the wrong choices? Chosen the wrong path?
Around 12:30, he got his first call of the night. George Washington was interested. He went to bed excited to see what the morning would hold, and by the time he woke up his phone was filled with texts and calls from coaches. Everything was going to be fine.
He has received a dozen more offers since that night, and he hopes to choose his college during the winter. He said it’s important to him not to jump at the biggest name. He hopes to find a program that gets a great home crowd, that can push him to the next level, that believes in him — one that deserves his loyalty and his pride.