By Joe Arruda
Blake Arena filled up on day three of the 2022 Spalding Hoophall Classic in anticipation of Camden High School’s game against Calvary Christian. But, at halftime, the bleachers began to empty.
The Panthers came into the showcase ranked No. 2 in the country by ESPN, and brought along the consensus top-ranked player in the class of 2023 – Dajuan (DJ) Wagner Jr.
Camden was coming off its first loss since February of 2019 which ended a 44-game win streak. The team was looking for a bounce-back win against Calvary Christian which was ranked at No. 22 in ESPN’s national team rankings.
However, the Eagles turned an early 19-8 lead into a 66-48 route. Fans left Blake Arena disappointed in the performance of the five-star combo guard, not even giving Wagner a chance to prove himself in the second half.
Wagner scored just 12 points, grabbed four rebounds and nabbed four steals by the end of the game, but those in attendance were unimpressed.
The Panthers had another shot at a Hoophall Classic win when they took on Milton High School on Monday, the final day of the event. This time, the arena was packed throughout.
Monday’s schedule was jam-packed with talent, with the fans just experiencing an impressive showing from Duke-commit Kyle Filipowski and one-armed superstar Hansel Emmanuel Donato Dominguez the game before.
Wagner came into the Milton game with just three losses in his high school career, but each of them were learning experiences.
“Going out there, you’ve just got to work for it. We try to push towards goals, so it definitely feels great to have three losses. With each loss we just (have) to learn from it. It’s a learning lesson,” he said after the team defeated Milton, 63-55 on Monday.
“These last two games, you know, we just have to keep fighting. That’s what we told each other. We all came together as a team and we just said we just gotta fight, we just gotta play hard. We (are) like brothers, we’re like a family, so it’s great to come out with a win.”
For Wagner, not only is Camden his family, but his family is Camden.
DJ is a third generation Camden basketball player with his father, Dajuan Wagner Sr., and his grandfather, Milt Wagner, preceding him at the school. Dajuan was a first-round pick in the 2002 NBA draft and played four seasons in the league, and Milt was a second-round pick in 1986.
“It’s like a blessing. It’s like a tradition – it’s great,” DJ said about continuing the family legacy at Camden.
Though DJ isn’t focused on his future in the middle of his junior high school season and the interest is high from Kentucky, it is hard to ignore more family ties to the University of Memphis. His father played there and his grandfather coached the Tigers for six years.
As a top-ranked recruit, DJ has a lot of say in his future.
“I don’t see it (being ranked No. 1 in his class) as pressure,” he said. “I don’t really focus on rankings or anything like that. I’m just focused on my team winning, that’s really what I’m focused on. I’m just focused on playing something I love to do, we all just playing something we love to do together, so none of us really see it as pressure. We (are) really just out there having fun.”
Having fun at the Hoophall Classic is something that Wagner and Camden are used to. In 2020, in a game televised by ESPN, the Panthers defeated current-NBA rookie Evan Mobley and Rancho Christian, 61-59. Wagner, then a freshman, scored 17 points in that game.
“Freshman year, it was definitely a great experience just being on this stage and being on a platform. And the same here, junior year it’s the same thing,” he said. “It’s definitely a blessing to get this kind of experience to play in this kind of stuff with my guys.”
For Wagner, stages like the one set at the Hoophall Classic will likely continue as his career progresses. DJ’s skillset and his passion to be great will undoubtedly help in continuing his family lineage of basketball greatness, regardless of where he ends up.