NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — In 1981, Milt Wagner was an 18-year-old shooting guard from Camden, New Jersey, who made the McDonald’s All-American Team.
Twenty years later, in 2001, Dajuan Wagner emerged from Camden as a genre-morphing combo guard who was not only a McDonald’s All-American but also rated the No. 1 boys basketball recruit in the country.
And now, with another 20 years passed, Dajuan Wagner Jr. has blossomed into the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2023. He turned 16 in May. The boy they call D.J. is the pride of Camden, just as his father and grandfather were in their own eras.
Milt, Juanny, D.J. Three generations of players who’ve ascended to the top of their sport as teenagers.
The odds are infinitesimal.
The story is phenomenal.
D.J. being a splendid 16-year-old basketball player was not bequeathed to him as a God-given right (though, watching him, you could easily convince yourself otherwise). His gene pool is special, but his work ethic and humility supersede whatever is happening inside him on a molecular level.
We’ve seen a few examples of father-son duos who have found hardwood success. But three consecutive generations of cream-of-the-crop basketball prospects? The Wagners are the first. It’s a wonderful American basketball story.
Milt starred for Camden High School and became a terrific college player under Denny Crum at Louisville, where he started on the Cardinals’ 1986 national championship team. Born when Milt was a sophomore at UL, Dajuan was bred in a culture of basketball from birth.
“D.J. didn’t have a chance — he grew up into two generations of it,” Milt Wagner told CBS Sports.
For D.J., it’s been a really good spring and summer, which culminated with nearly two weeks worth of games at Nike’s EYBL and Peach Jam events. He played up on the U17 NJ Scholars grassroots team and averaged 18.1 points, 3.9 assists and 2.0 steals during EYBL play, looking very much the part of a superlative high school point guard.
“If you watch him play, you won’t know he’s that young,” Milt Wagner said. “You would think he’s just as old as the rest of them kids, and he’s probably younger than all of them. He’s a student of the game, a gym rat, a high basketball IQ. To be that young, he has a good pace to his game. It’s hard to teach kids that young to have that pace, his own pace, and that separates him from a lot of people.”
Wagner’s high school games the past two seasons — when fans have been allowed in the gym — have drawn curious people from “all over” to see him, Milt said. But being the most famous high school hooper in New Jersey, and now one of the most prominent prospects in America, hasn’t affected D.J.’s attitude or outlook on his life and prospects.
“He had all sorts of hype going into high school,” Milt said. “Once he got there, he didn’t disappoint anybody. He was exactly what they thought he would be. I think he’s going to have a chance to be better than me and his father. He’s got the whole city following, that’s for sure.”
Soon enough, it will probably be more than just a city or even an entire state. With D.J. Wagner’s junior year set to begin in less than a month, college coaches from the biggest programs across the country are smitten with this unpretentious point guard who, at this point, says he’s open to literally any Division I college staff that would like to recruit him.
Why the No. 1 ranking means nothing to D.J.
Where a player gets ranked by recruiting services usually matters a lot to that player. And if not them, then likely a parent or a coach. Not every recruit sees it this way, but many understandably do. Rankings are exposure and exposure is opportunity. The greater the exposure, the more availability to enhance your prospects by widening your pool of scholarship possibilities.
None of this matters to D.J, though. For the Wagners, D.J.’s stature among high school players is regarded as an accepted thing … but in reality carries essentially no importance. This is extremely uncommon among five-star players, let alone the next-level elite prospects fighting for the top spot.
“He’s been the No. 1 player in his class the last year or two — it means nothing to him,” Syreeta Wagner, D.J.’s mother, told CBS Sports. “His dad’s done a great job of keeping him grounded. The rankings mean nothing. It’s a team sport, it’s not an individual sport. He just wants to win. He doesn’t care if he has 50 points or five, as long as he gets his team to win. He never cared about the hype.”
Lessons applied, in part, because Milt and Dajuan can clearly still remember just how much cacophony encompassed Dajuan’s high school years. Milt made sure Dajuan didn’t let his ego overpower his drive. Speak to those who knew the many they call Juanny, back when they knew him as a high school player, and they’ll attest to how his work ethic and blue-collar approach to basketball kept him going straight. He was a superstar as a prospect by the time he was 17. D.J.’s likely on his way there now, and in speaking with his family, one can see those gentle but important lessons being applied — though D.J. hardly needs coercing.
“The stuff my dad installed to me when I was younger, we take it all and put it all in him, me and my dad,” Dajuan told CBS Sports about his son. “It’s just about winning, having fun with your friends, getting better every day and not worrying about the rankings or all the crazy stuff. When you win, everything falls into place.”
Dajuan’s talking outside Gym 6 in North Augusta, where his son will play in a little more than an hour. You can see it in his eyes: that fatherly pride, bolstered by the memories of what he went through more than two decades ago, when his life changed in a way for which he wasn’t truly prepared. And that was before the advent of social media and the immeasurable expansion of the internet.
“What do you want to do when you grow up? Take it as a job then,” Dajuan said. “But now, be a kid, have fun, no pressure.”
Dajuan’s seen firsthand how the pressure, prospect rankings and tidal waves of attention can affect the mentality of young players. He endured some of that at 16 and 17 years old, too. They used to organize AAU showcases around the idea that a young Dajuan Wagner would show up and show out.
“It can poison them,” Dajuan said. “You have to mute that at home. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about your team and winning games. All that rankings stuff don’t mean much. Look at the dudes in the NBA. Many of them weren’t ranked.”
D.J. Wagner is poised to repeat what his father did 20 years ago: be the No. 1-ranked player in his high school class.
The Wagner basketball legacy continues
The past three years have been a steady rise for D.J. Wagner, who by the age of 13 was undeniably showing the kinds of gifts that often signal a promising future in basketball. Although there has been a story building for a while here, the family has managed all expectations and kept hype from entering into their home. Since D.J. was at a grade-school level, Dajuan and Syreeta were insistent that their son keep a truly normal adolescence.
“He’s been naturally humble from the beginning,” Syreeta Wagner said.
It was an early knack and affinity for football that gave D.J. a toughness groove in his head that later translated to the basketball court and has stayed with him. Young D.J. was so talented that they had to stop giving him the ball because he would score touchdowns too easily and too often. The youngest boy on the field was making it an unfair game for the bigger kids.
“A lot of that football helped him now because you can see how he gets to the basket, absorbing that contact,” Milt said.
D.J. will pick his spots in how physical he gets with older and bigger players now, but you’ll never catch fear in his eyes. His love of hoops found a higher level shortly before his high school career began, when he started to truly understand his lineage and the way his father and grandfather played. He says it drove him to want more. The more D.J. understood, the more he realized he needed — and wanted — to learn.
“I want to be that good, or be even better,” D.J. told CBS Sports. “The natural love came first, and then learning about my dad and stuff, they pushed me more and made me more motivated.”
How many 16-year-olds in 2021 know what a VCR is? D.J.’s watched videos not just of his dad but VHS tapes of Milt, too.
“Even when my Grandpop was in high school and in college,” he said. “It’s crazy to watch how good they really was and how the game was when they played. It was crazy watching. It was a surreal moment.”
The Wagner family is from all around the Camden part of New Jersey, which hugs up against Philadelphia. Basketball games are huge family affairs in normal times, when 40-50 direct relatives will show up to see D.J. play. Catch one of his games and you’ll immediately notice something within seconds of watching D.J. Stylistically, the young man hardly resembles his father as a basketball player. He’s longer, leaner, more of a true point guard.
“I’m the type of player that takes what they give me,” he said. “I don’t focus on any certain moves or shooting the ball, I just take what they give me. If i see something the defense gives me, I’ll just take it.”
Milt, however, was a 6-5 shooting guard in his day. His build and body movement are closer to D.J.’s style than Dajuan’s, though it’s undeniable that D.J and Dajuan share a rugged toughness that might as well be identical.
“He is exactly Dajuan,” Syreeta said. “His personality, his demeanor, his humbleness, his kindness.”
Whereas Dajuan was an aggressive, bull-in-a-china-shop type — the vintage/platonic model of that early 2000s player — D.J. is a still-growing lead guard who is devastating in transition because he blazes to open angles and makes defenses pay with his willingness to distribute. He’s slender the way his grandfather was and gets the basket with either hand around the rim. There’s a great use of the floater, as well. Dajuan said his son shoots the jump shot like his dad, who was silky from mid-range. On the defensive end, he’s tenacious.
D.J. has been trained by his father for a long time; Dajuan took to training boys at a local gym after his NBA career ended due to a string of health issues. He doesn’t shy away from comparisons to his father or grandfather. For him, it’s a supreme compliment.
“It’s an honor and blessing, coming up behind two great players,” D.J. said. “I never looked at it as that. I’m just a kid that loves playing basketball. But I sit back sometimes and think, That’s crazy. As great a player as they was, I sit back and think. … I never look at it as pressure. I watch old tapes of them. They motivate me and keep me going. It’s not pressure, it’s just having fun because I’m loving what i’m doing.”
Amazingly, D.J. is yet to even touch a weight as a part of his training regimen, and that is intentional. Dajuan wants his son’s body to grow organically, and to this point he’s gained his strength primarily by doing pushups, in addition to lots of stretching and body-strengthening exercises that don’t require dumbbells or machinery. (But dad is going to bring the iron into the picture soon.)
“I’ve seen Dajuan at that age, when he was young and how good he was, and I get to see D.J. and it is very similar,” Milt said. “The skill level to be that young — very similar. We see it but we don’t tell people. We aren’t the type of family to say, ‘He’s going to be this, be that.’ We don’t even tell him. We’ll watch, talk amongst each other, but keep it there.”
D.J. makes it easy on his family because he has what’s been described as a healthy love of basketball. It’s not his whole life — he is a straight-A student — but the trajectory is almost irrefutable by now.
“All three of them are the same,” Syreeta said with a chuckle. “Humble, not going crazy at the games, them three are just laid back. They don’t hassle him about basketball. Dajuan and Milt just support him. Of course you have [Dajuan] as your father and Milt as your grandfather they’re going to give you tips and advice because they were one of the best, but otherwise they let him play.”
Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and Devin Booker are the players the young Wagner finds most interesting to study these days. He was careful to point out that he’s not directly modeling his game after any of them, but in watching Wagner play you can see a bit of Westbrook’s athletic determinism, plenty of Lillard’s steely-eyed composure and a helping of Booker’s mid-range pull-up technique.
Why college is the desired path
If you’re an informed college basketball or high school hoops enthusiast who’s read this far and felt it a little surprising that a No. 1 player’s recruitment hasn’t been more intensely covered, there are two reasons for that.
1) Keep in mind he just turned 16 in May and has two full years of high school left.
2) The family is open to casting as wide of a net as possible and isn’t trying to dictate the recruitment of their son, nor the coverage of it, the way some people sometimes do.
Wagner does not post about himself or his scholarship offers on social media. This isn’t by secretive design; it’s simply of no interest to him. Despite there being plenty of non-college options for Wagner to pursue, choosing the likes of go-between pro career prior to entering the NBA Draft doesn’t seem to be of much attraction to the family.
I’m about to share a quote from the No. 1 prospect in 2023, someone who will probably go on to be an NBA lottery pick in a few years’ time. This is D.J. Wagner’s approach to recruiting:
“I’m just really happy that any schools wanted to reach out to me. I’m just happy right now. I don’t look at like, dang, all these schools are calling. I’m open to any coach. I’m just grateful for anyone who reaches out. I’ve always been a fan of college basketball and I always have loved college. I’m going to college. I love the competitive nature around the sport, watching March Madness, teams fighting [to win], the fans, how passionate they are about those teams, those kind of things make me love college basketball.”
That is … uncommonly humble. Wagner has an open-book type of recruitment that will certainly begin to intensify in the next few months. Be it blue blood, Ivy League or just about any type of program in between, the family is humbly receptive to listen to all serious pitches.
“He’s open to any college,” Syreeta said. “He won’t tell you this, but he’s got over 40 offers already.”
D.J., indeed, won’t tell people that, because that’s not how he’s wired. He basically seeks no attention. If you’re looking for many of the biggest programs who are in on D.J. now: Villanova, Kentucky, Duke, Gonzaga, Memphis and Michigan only begin to start the list of notable schools who are spiritedly courting him.
“The goal is college,” Syreeta said. “Which college? We don’t know. He doesn’t have a top three, a top five, a top 10, but he’s definitely open to any college right now.”
Syreeta and Dajuan weren’t the ones to point this out, but their roles as supportive parents — which is to say: not being helicopter-like — have also likely helped D.J. through the first half of his high school career. Catch Juanny in the stands and he’s always invested but never overly emotional. The two are not looking to control a situation. They trust their son, and they trust the people who are coaching him.
“We did our job by putting good coaching around him — so we can just be parents,” Dajuan said.
Having been around basketball their whole lives, Dajuan and Syreeta believe the nature of being a basketball family naturally helped D.J.’s worldview and mental development. All of this wasn’t thrust upon him at the age of 15 without any perspective or experience from others — those he can trust — to fall back on.
“He’s going to be a kid as long as he can,” Dajuan said. “Best days of your life being around your friends. This time. There ain’t no rush. Have fun. Because when it becomes a business, it’s no more fun.”
Wagner can speak from experience. His words here ring with a poignance, as teenage players mill about the Riverview Park Activities Center, preparing for games, building their dreams, scrolling their phones to check what’s being said about their teams, their friends and themselves on social media.
Education matters to the family in a way that’s palpable. D.J. is strongest in math and history, and the only thing he hates more than losing — maybe — is getting a B. There will be no prep schools in his future, either. No Montverde Academy or Oak Hill Academy or South Kent or IMG Academy. Camden is home. Camden built him and Camden High will watch him play for four years, just as did with Juanny and Milt.
“It’s a public school, it’s where his father and grandfather played at. That’s been his dream, I think, more than being in the NBA,” Syreeta said. “He will be at Camden High for the remainder of his high school career. He’s not going anywhere.”
A No. 1 prospect choosing to play his entire career at a public high school with sites clearly set on going to college, and earnestly embracing the recruiting process? D.J. Wagner seems to be from another era. But of course, that’s exactly where he came from.