William Buford says he is in a good place.
Presumably, that’s because the place is Santa Cruz, Calif., where one day of perfect bleeds into the next — Thursday’s forecast: 76 and sunny — until you question why the local news employs a weatherman.
“It’s great,” Buford said. “Don’t have to worry about snow here.”
Buford, though, is referring to his basketball career.
After an uneven experience playing overseas, the 24-year-old former Libbey and Ohio State star is back stateside running down his hoop dreams with the Santa Cruz Warriors of the NBA Developmental League.
Buford played last year in Santiago, Spain, for Club Obradoiro of Europe’s top league but took a cut in pay for more exposure in the American farm system that has become basketball’s top professional proving ground.
There are 124 players in the NBA with D-League experience — including Houston Rockets cult hero Jeremy Lin, Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley, and former Buckeyes big men Kosta Koufos (Memphis Grizzlies) and B.J. Mullens (Los Angeles Clippers) — and Buford hopes he will be among the latest to make the leap. A first-round pick in last summer’s eight-round D-League draft, Buford averages 10.6 points and 24 minutes for the first-place Warriors.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound shooting guard with the nearly seven-foot wingspan is not yet rapping on the parent club’s door — the distance between Santa Cruz’s 2,500-seat home gym and the Golden State Warriors’ 20,000-seat Oracle Arena often seeming longer than the 70-mile drive up I-880. Buford comes off the bench and, in the eyes of evaluators, needs to prove his game has more dimensions than a deft outside touch.
But the former Mr. Ohio has shown increasing bursts of his potential, to the point where Santa Cruz coach Casey Hill said, “I do think he’s a potential NBA player.”
“I’ve spoken to him a number of times about [the NBA],” said Hill, the son of longtime former NBA coach Bob Hill. “I think he questions himself from time to time offensively. He’s got such great length, and he's more athletic than people give him credit for. I keep telling him he he can score when he goes to the rim.
“If he can develop that skill of finding his angles, getting into the lane, trying to finish, then his jump shot will become more and more available as he becomes more of a well-rounded scorer. It’s funny, we had that conversation right before we played the Rio Grande Valley Vipers last week, and he went out and went right to the rim.”
In the Warriors’ 127-115 win that night, Buford hit 2 of 4 3-pointers and was 7 of 10 overall for 18 points in just 20 minutes. He is shooting 35 percent from the arc and 44 percent overall this season.
“That was really kind of gratifying for me,” Hill said. “We’ve got him in a good place right now.”
Buford said he is getting his “groove back” after a twisting start to his professional career.
A four-year college throwback, he had always appeared on course to be the first Toledo native drafted since Jim Jackson was selected fourth overall by the Dallas Mavericks in 1992. Buford finished his OSU career tied with Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas on the school’s all-time scoring list and averaged a career-high 14.5 points as a senior.
But a trail of questions on a suddenly inconsistent shot — his 3-point shooting percentage dropped from 44.2 as a junior to 35.8 percent his final season — and his commitment lingered. At the 2012 NBA Combine in Chicago, his 11.3 percent body fat was third-highest among the 60 prospects.
Buford went undrafted and signed a one-year deal with Obradoiro.
He enjoyed much of the experience, including Santiago, an ancient city of 95,000 where an 800-year-old cathedral towers over the main plaza. He had a three-bedroom apartment to himself, became close friends with former Purdue star Robbie Hummel — one of the team’s few Americans — and made a nice living. While terms of the contract were undisclosed, the team held a news conference to introduce their new star.
Buford, though, struggled to adjust to the international style.
“I got called for a lot of travels, I’ll put it to you that way,” he said with a laugh. “The first step is totally different over there from here.”
He also didn’t feel he had nudged any closer to the NBA.
“I learned a lot over there that year, but I wanted to invest in myself and try to get more looks from the NBA, from NBA scouts,” Buford said. “That’s what brought me back to the D-League.”
Hill saw a player he felt could flourish away from the colder, bottom-line approach of overseas. Like with minor league baseball, the D-League teams are beholden to parent clubs more interested in player development than winning.
“We value these guys,” Hill said. “They’re not the American on our team. ... We’re really trying to help them more than sell tickets because of them or sell posters or win a million games.”
And he has found few students better than Buford, who arrived to camp bent on redemption.
“We heard he had put some weight on after college, but I watched film on him, and what he did in college really kind of showed what his potential on this level of basketball could be,” Hill said. “Then he showed up here, and he was in really good shape. Obviously, he’s a great shooter that can score the ball in a couple different ways, but he’s brought to the table a lot more than I expected. He’s been a great defender, a wonderful teammate, a great worker in practice, and his attitude has just been off the charts. I’d say we made a very successful draft choice.”
He added: “I think he’ll turn some heads.”