The atmosphere at the Peak Skills Basketball facility in West Berlin was suitably casual, as one might expect it to be on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October. Players milled about. Fans chatted as they settled into the bleachers. On the court, the proceedings between teams from Camden High School and Hamilton Hall Academy predictably lacked the intensity that regular-season action brings.
For a little while.
Then, the referees ignored a goaltending violation, and the players started chirping at each other. Camden coach Rick Brunson, who was at the game in an unofficial capacity, but who wanted to see his team show a little fire, preseason or not, became agitated. A fun Sunday had lost its relaxed vibe.
Amid the swirl, Camden junior DJ Wagner remained somewhat aloof. He shook his head at the blown call. He listened to the chatter. Then he took over. The 6-foot 3-inch, 165-pound Wagner stole a Hamilton Hall pass, zipped through three defenders, and converted a lefty layup in heavy traffic. The next possession, he drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key. Not long after, he took a pass and made a lightning move to the hoop for a layup—and was fouled. As the first half wound down, Wagner drove across the lane to the right, made a jump stop in the middle, and improbably slithered back to his left to draw a foul on a layup try. He made both free throws.
Suddenly, the nation’s number one prospect in the class of 2023—according to ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports—had cooled everything down with his ability to dominate the game and eliminate any heat that Hamilton Hall had generated. Camden won the game 62–36, with Wagner doing what was necessary, when it was necessary, to facilitate the victory.
“[Hamilton Hall] just came out excited to play us,” Wagner said afterward. “We had to respond with the same energy.”
That’s how it is at Camden. That’s how it has always been. As one of the state’s most storied programs, The High inspires opponents to put forth maximum effort in the hopes of boosting their resumes with a signature victory. Camden has won 10 NJSIAA titles and spawned a long list of star players, from Ron “Itchy” Smith to Billy Thompson to Kevin Walls. Wagner’s father, Dajuan Wagner, and his paternal grandfather, Milt Wagner, are also Camden legends. Both later played in the NBA.
DJ’s status as a third-generation Panther star makes him remarkable, and his substantial on-court skills add to the Wagner legend. But his desire to play ball for his hometown team is also noteworthy. While many other top prospects across the nation leave their hometowns for hoops-centric prep schools—even Hamilton Hall refers to itself as a “basketball-focused college-preparatory academy”—Wagner is true to his city, Camden. “This kid is grounded,” Brunson says. This season, Wagner will attempt to lead the Panthers to their first state title since 2000, when his father propelled the program to the top of the state.
“Camden basketball has been a big part of my life,” Wagner says. “I’ve been going to Camden High games since I was a baby. I always wanted to play for Camden.
“It’s a different atmosphere. The fans are the best in the world. There is nothing like playing for the city and winning for the city.”
It’s not as if Wagner’s choice to represent Camden will prevent the world from discovering him. The Panthers will play several high-profile games throughout the season, and scouts have already put together dossiers detailing the guard’s electric abilities. Since he’s a junior, Wagner has two more prep seasons and a summer of Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) travel ball—he’s on the NJ Scholars team—to improve his reputation.
Not that people aren’t already impressed. He has a long list of scholarship offers from powerhouse schools, including Kentucky, Villanova, Memphis and Syracuse. “Is he possibly the best [junior] player in the country? Sure,” says Frank Burlison, a Los Angeles–based United States Basketball Writers Hall of Fame member who runs an NBA and college-basketball scouting service. “Even if his last name wasn’t Wagner, people would still be talking about him being one of the elite players in the East and his entire class, rather than just being part of an interesting three-generation story.”
Wagner could also go straight to the NBA if the league changes its rules and permits high school graduates to enter the draft immediately. In Wagner’s case, the Association has a couple of years to figure that out, but he doesn’t seem too interested in turning pro right away. “I don’t think I’d consider that,” he says. “I grew up loving college basketball.”
When Milt Wagner, now 58, was playing for the Lakers in the late ’80s, he used to bring his then-5-year-old son Dajuan with him to practice and watch the youngster put up “deep jumpers” that often went in. “I could tell he was different,” Milt says.
Milt wasn’t exactly ordinary. A McDonald’s All-American while at Camden, he was the first in a pipeline from the school to Louisville, where he was joined by Panther standouts Thompson and Walls. The trio helped the Cardinals win the 1986 NCAA title.
Dajuan, who is now 38, has a strong case as New Jersey’s greatest high school player. He scored 80 points in a game as a junior and 100 a year later. His 3,462 career points are the most in New Jersey prep history. He played one year at Memphis before becoming the sixth overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. Though his NBA career was cut short by complications from ulcerative colitis, Dajuan averaged 13.4 points per game his rookie season.
With a lineage like that, it was almost guaranteed that DJ would be something special, and that he would play four seasons at Camden. “We have always been like that,” Milt says. “…We weren’t going to leave our high school. We felt obligated to represent our high school. People supported us, and because we had a chance to do it, the three Wagners were going to represent our city.
“You don’t have to worry about DJ playing for anybody else.”
That’s great news for the Panthers, who were favored to win the state title two years ago, before Covid-19 interrupted the 2019–20 season, and last year, when there was no NJSIAA tournament. Brunson, a former Temple University star who played nine years in the NBA, has assembled a deep, talented team that will cause trouble for anybody—from Jersey or elsewhere. But Wagner is the clear standout.
“DJ can play point guard and shooting guard,” Dajuan says. “He can get his teammates involved. That’s something I’ve always stressed to him. I want him to play hard at both ends.”
Wagner has a lithe frame, but broad shoulders that indicate potential for growth, especially now that he has started lifting weights seriously. As a youngster, Wagner loved football as much as hoops, but in sixth grade, he chose the hardwood. He has an easy release on his shot, an accurate eye from long range and a rattlesnake-quick first step that puts defenders in immediate peril. He’s a willing passer and a slick ball handler, and he can put up plenty of points. But unlike Dajuan, who hunted shots and was a volume scorer, DJ is comfortable fitting into the flow of the game. That is admirable, but it can also be detrimental to the Camden cause.
“He needs to be in attack mode all game,” Brunson says. “Sometimes, DJ lets the game come to him—to a fault. He gets shy sometimes when he takes over.”
When people talk about standout high school athletes, it’s hard to remember that they are just teenagers. Wagner won’t turn 17 until May. He has a bright smile and a voice that has yet to find its final depth. He’s working to improve, but he’s still just a high school kid. “I always want to be myself,” he says. “I want to be the same person all the time, have fun with my friends and goof around all the time.”
His father and grandfather understand all that’s ahead and expect DJ to grow as a player and as part of the Camden legacy. And just as Milt went at it with Dajuan when he was coming up, Dajuan spars with DJ to teach him some tricks. “We have some battles,” DJ says of their one-on-one matchups. When Milt played Dajuan, each player was allowed only two dribbles, because Milt felt a truly great player didn’t need any more than two to set up his shot. There was some pushing and shoving—and some trash talk. “He couldn’t beat me until junior year,” Milt says. “Then, he beat me good.” Dajuan admits that he is “ducking” DJ these days. “I’m trying to get in shape,” he says, laughing. “I need three dribbles now.”
Father and son will continue to battle. Just as Milt stepped aside for Dajuan, so, too, will Dajuan cede the family crown to DJ. Like those before him, the teenager has a basketball kingdom to rule over in Camden.
“It means a lot to have DJ play for Camden,” Dajuan says. “I can’t describe the feeling to see my son doing what me and my dad were doing. I’m proud of him. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with this, and how he’s handling it shows how all of us brought him up.”
And, it shows how much Camden has to look forward to.
Michael Bradley is a writer and assistant instructor at Villanova University who collaborated with Pro Football Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins on the book Blessed by the Best: My Journey to Canton and Beyond.Click here to leave a comment