DJ Wagner (above) comes from a family of successful Camden ball players. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
That innate sense to know where everyone is at all times was well on display when Camden’s DJ Wagner grabbed a defensive rebound during the Panthers’ game against Roman Catholic at Philly Live 2021 at St. Joe’s Prep on Friday, June 25.
Yes, there is beauty in snaring a defensive rebound. Within seconds of the ball landing in his hands, the gifted 6-foot-3, 170-pound point guard threw a pass down court to a breaking teammate for an easy layup.
Wagner didn’t even have time to look down court. He just knew it.
The play was greeted by an affirming nod by Villanova’s Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright, seated arms folded on the baseline.
Wagner’s transcendent skills come as part work ethic, part genetics. He’s the grandson of former Camden legend Milt Wagner and the son of former Camden star Dajuan Wagner Sr. “DJ,” as family and friends refer to him, is coming off a COVID-19 truncated season as the No. 1 sophomore high school basketball player in the nation.
There’s something that comes as even higher praise than that billing. He could be the best of the Wagner bloodline.
“He is,” said grandfather Milt, now age 58, who went on to pair with Camden teammate Billy Thompson to win Denny Crum’s Louisville the 1986 NCAA national championship, and still lives in the Louisville area. Milt went on to win the 1987-88 NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers under Pat Riley.
“DJ has the combination of me and his father in him. He’s taller than his dad, and I see DJ’s jump shot and build like mine. He can attack with either hand and that’s something that comes from his father. His passing skills as a point guard are all his own. I have no problem saying DJ is far better than me at the same age—and I’ll guarantee you his father will say the same.”
Dajuan Wagner Sr. didn’t hesitate.
“DJ is,” said Dajuan Sr., now 38. “But I don’t want any more pressure on him. He gets it from everywhere, carrying the tradition of the name and of Camden. Me and Syreeta (Brittingham, DJ’s mom) want him to have fun and enjoy this time. This time shouldn’t be like a job to him. Look at (today’s Philly Live 2021 game against Roman) and everyone circling the court to see him.
“That’s fine. It’s why I stand back. My job is to make DJ better than me, like my dad made me better than him. If DJ isn’t better, we haven’t done our job. That’s on us, not him. So far, everything he does is better than what I was able to do at the same age.”
DJ can go anywhere in the country. He’s not closed his options — from Kentucky, coached by John Calipari, who recruited and coached Dajuan at Memphis, to perennial local national powerhouse Villanova, which is all over him, to Temple. There’s a long list that follows.
DJ Wagner (above) is trying to keep up his family tradition of helping Camden win a state title. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Though, honestly, where he goes is not as important as how far he goes—as in winning Camden a state title. Milt did it in 1979. Dajuan Sr. did his junior year in 2000. Camden hasn’t won a New Jersey state championship since.
It would be a nice bookend for DJ to lead the Panthers to a state title this coming season—his junior year.
“It’s all I really think about—winning and helping my teammates get better,” said DJ, who carries a 3.8 GPA. “The summer has been good. We’ve been working and staying in the gym. I’m happy that we’re all together after the (pandemic) last year. I’ve been working on small things this year and being able to slow the game down.
“It’s nothing specific that I have been working on, just playing the right way. I want us all to improve and get better every day. I’m lifting a little bit, light weights. In the future, I’ll start testing lifting more. I don’t touch any crazy weights yet.
“I really want to enjoy the whole recruiting process,” he continued. “I’m not taking too much seriously right now. Winning is the most important to me above everything. I want to get my teammates involved and I want to help everybody to get better around me. But I would say I want to win a state championship above everything else.
“My father won a state championship as a junior and I want to do him one better—winning a state championship my junior year and my senior year. But I can’t win back-to-back titles unless we win that first one. This team is like a family. I can’t let my family down. We’re all excited for this year.”
The feeling from many national recruiting pundits is that Wagner will end up at Kentucky, and he very well may. But there is also an underlying feeling among some in Camden, that DJ may want to branch out and begin his own journey, and that may throw Villanova very much into the picture.
For now, aside from winning that first state title, DJ still has a lingering piece of business to address.
“He’s never beaten me yet in a game of one-on-one,” Dajuan Sr. said, laughing. “Then again, I didn’t beat my dad until my sophomore year of high school. The day is coming. I’ll hug DJ the day he beats me, like I hugged my dad the first time I beat him.
“We have to continue the tradition.”