DJ Wagner: The (likely) first third-generation NBA Player

Three Generations: The Court Kings of Camden

Over the course of its 75-year history, the NBA has seen 95 second-generation players. Currently there are 30 — about seven percent of the league — and with an exciting abundance of NBA-player progeny in the prospect pipeline, that share will surely hit double figures in the next few years. 

Just as it was inevitable that the league would eventually be flooded with the sons of its former players — kids who grew up around the game at its highest level and inherited the size and/or athletic gifts of their fathers — it is also inevitable that there will soon come someone of an even deeper basketball bloodline: a third-generation NBA player. And indeed it appears the league is on the brink of such an arrival. His name is D.J. Wagner, and he’s the top ranked high school junior in the country.

D.J.’s grandfather, Milt Wagner, played briefly in the NBA in the 1980s, winning a title with the Showtime Lakers before embarking on a lengthy career overseas. D.J.’s father is Dajuan Wagner, the sixth overall pick in the 2002 draft. He was a prolific scorer whose NBA career was cut short due to a series of serious health problems. 

Both Milt and Dajuan are, for lack of a stronger word, legends in the city of Camden, New Jersey, a notoriously crime-heavy municipality situated directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. It was named the most dangerous city in America five times between 2004 and 2014, and it’s been near the top of the per-capita violent-crime rankings for decades.

Milt, a lanky 6’5” combo guard, scored over 2,000 points, was named a McDonald’s All-American, and brought a state championship home to Camden before going on to a stellar career at Louisville, where he won an NCAA title in 1986 and ranks sixth on the school’s career-scoring leaderboard with 1,836 points. 

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The Mavericks chose Milt 35th overall in the 1986 draft, but he was cut in training camp and ended up spending that season playing for LaCrosse and Rockford in the CBA. He was picked up by the Lakers for 1987-88, and while he played sparingly across just 40 regular-season games, he was on the roster when they won the 1988 NBA title, appearing briefly in two of the seven games against Detroit in the Finals. He’s one of the only players ever to win a championship at all three levels — high school, college, and the NBA. Amazingly, he won all three alongside teammate Billy Thompson.

Milt was cut by the Lakers prior to the start of 1988-89, so he went back to the CBA, this time playing for Rapid City. He spent 1989-90 in Israel, where he averaged 26 points per game, and then returned to the States the following season. He was signed by the fledgling Miami Heat, who also rostered his friend and longtime teammate Thompson, but saw action in just 13 games. They were the last NBA games he would play. 

He finished out that season in the CBA with Quad City, and then joined the short-lived GBA for 1991-92, playing for the Louisville Shooters. The following season he went back overseas, where he would play another seven seasons — in Belgium, France, and Israel — routinely averaging over 20 points per game, before retiring prior to the start of 1999-00, Dajuan’s junior year of high school.

The basketball court at Camden High is named after Dajuan, who remains, probably untouchably, the state’s all-time leading scorer with 3,462 points, 100 of which came, famously, in a single game, in under 30 minutes, on 42-of-60 shooting, including ten three-pointers and 14 dunks, during a senior season over which he averaged 42.5 points per game, was named National Player of the Year, and established himself as the greatest high school player in the history of New Jersey.

Dajuan spent one year at Memphis playing for John Calipari and was electric, earning First-team All-Conference USA honors on the strength of 21.5 points per game. He had considered returning for his sophomore season, but Calipari, in dramatic fashion, put a stop to that idea. After the season ended, he revoked Wagner’s scholarship — ripped it up in front of him — to force him, for his own good, to enter the NBA Draft, where the coach knew his star guard would be a lottery pick. 

Dajuan was selected sixth overall by the Cavs, who had finished the previous season 29-53 and featured the high-flying but erratic duo of Ricky Davis and Darius Miles. Also on the team was 12-year veteran Bimbo Coles, who had been teammates with Milt in Miami as a rookie.

During his first month in the NBA, as a nineteen-year-old, Dajuan recorded seven 25-plus point games — including 33 in a win over the Raptors, and 25 with 10 assists in a loss to the Knicks — and averaged over 19 points per game as Cleveland’s starting shooting guard, despite being just six-foot-two.

Wagner’s stellar early play was especially impressive considering he had missed the first 14 games of that season due to a blood clot which formed while he was hospitalized for a bladder infection, the first in a long line of ailments and injuries that would plague and ultimately extinguish his brief NBA career.

In March, torn cartilage was discovered in his right knee, and the surgery it required cost him the final 20 games of his rookie season. A second surgery on that knee had been scheduled for prior to the start of his second season, 2003-04, but was delayed due to inflammation of his liver and pancreas. He ended up missing the first 33 games of that season.

His third year was cut short after just 11 games due to severe and worsening stomach pain which was eventually diagnosed as ulcerative colitis. The condition necessitated the removal of his colon, an operation which required harvesting part of his intestine to fabricate a replacement pouch, leaving him with a massive scar on his abdomen.

It felt as if Dajuan Wagner’s NBA career was over before it began. Save for a brief, one-game comeback attempt with the Warriors in 2006, he was out of the league by his 21st birthday, after just 102 games, and before he had a chance to showcase his boundless aptitude as a scorer.

A powerful guard with a lethal first step, “Juanny” could give you buckets from anywhere. His age-belying craft and vast mid-range shot variety were developed over endless hours on the time-worn courts of Camden, and the same can be said for his fearlessness, his striking ambidexterity, and his ability to finish through contact.

He played a lot like Allen Iverson. He didn’t have that level of quickness — although he was quick, and explosive — but he was bigger, physically stronger, and had a better outside shot. It was on full display when he hung 29 points on Iverson and the Sixers in just his third NBA game.

Dajuan Wagner had superstar-level talent and a rare degree of sheer toughness commensurate with his home city. It’s not a stretch to say he would’ve developed into a multi-time All-Star had he been blessed with good health. 

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Dajuan Wagner Jr. — D.J. — has carried on the family tradition at Camden High, where he’s being coached by Rick Brunson, a former NBA player and the father of Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson. 

D.J. has been the top ranked player in the class of 2023 for a couple years now, but rather than enrolling at a basketball-centric prep school such as Oak Hill or Montverde, he opted to fulfill a lifelong dream by following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather at “The High.”

As a freshman, D.J. averaged a team-leading 18.6 points per game for the Panthers, who went 29-1 en route to the South Jersey Group 2 Championship. He was named to the All-South Jersey First Team. As a sophomore, he was named Gatorade Player of the Year for New Jersey. He led Camden to a 13-0 record in the covid-shortened season and averaged 22.0 points per game.

So far this season, the Panthers are 10-2. They recently had a 44-game winning streak snapped by Duke-bound Dariq Whitehead and Montverde, and then dropped one to LSU commit Marvel Allen and Calvary Christian two days later. D.J. is averaging 18.3 points per game on the season, but that average is dragged down significantly by the career-low four points to which he was held by Montverde, who made it their mission to smother the Camden star at all costs.

Although he’s not the volume scorer his father was, much of his game is eerily reminiscent: the lethal first step, the relentless drives, the hard dribbles, the gathers, the ball-toughness, the ambidexterity, the strong finishes, the ease with which he absorbs contact. But he’s longer than Dajuan, and leaner — built more like Milt.

His athleticism stands out, but it’s more fluid than forceful — more Milt than Dajuan, but certainly, naturally, a combination of the two. He’s a smooth, quick athlete with high-level feel that translates to a second-nature sense for when to go which speed; he rarely appears out of control.

His crossover is filthy, and he explodes out of it with perfect timing and technique. His handle overall is advanced, and he uses it efficiently, and effectively, getting to his favorite spots in the midrange — his father’s former wheelhouse — or to floater range, or all the way to the rack, where his finishing bag is bottomless. 

Still just 16 years old (he’ll turn 17 in May), he’s as complete a prospect as you’ll see at his age; there’s nothing on the court he doesn’t do well. He’s an exceedingly patient and unselfish player who operates within the flow of the game and exudes toughness, composure, and deep-rooted confidence at all times. He plays like he’s been there before, and I suppose that comes from his bloodline.

D.J. projects as a lottery pick in the 2024 draft, but it’s probably best not to make assumptions about his path based on the routes most commonly taken by other five-star prospects. He did, after all, choose to play for a public school rather than a basketball factory, and he’s made it clear that, despite the increasingly broad variety of pre-NBA options available, he fully intends on going to college. D.J.’s journey to the NBA seems unhurried, just like his game. 

Although he’s been ranked number one in his class for at least two years, D.J. is not the most high-profile kid in that group. Bronny James and Mikey Williams have 6 million and 3.5 million Instagram followers, respectively. Others, like sixth ranked Rob Dillingham of Kanye’s West’s Donda Academy — a school featured on the latest cover of SLAM — have flashier games. Some, such as second ranked 6’9” forward KJ Evans of Montverde, play for more prominent schools.

But still, between his long-held number one ranking and his famous last name, D.J. Wagner has plenty of eyes on him, and especially in Camden, where homegrown basketball stars are beacons of promise and hope.

During his high school days, Dajuan was known as The Messiah. Camden in 2001 was among the five poorest and most dangerous cities in America. It had the highest homicide rate in New Jersey, and its school system had a drop-out rate of 50 percent. Crippled by crumbling industries and decades of corruption, it was the urban pinnacle of despair. Dajuan’s on-court greatness brought an otherwise largely fractured community together, represented a much-needed source of pride. 

And while Camden today is a safer place than it was 20 years ago — violent crime has dropped 33% since 2014, the year after the city famously abolished and replaced its police force — and large-scale development projects, including a new, $133 million Camden High, have brightened both its appearance and its outlook, it remains haunted by its past and saddled by the reality that real change doesn’t happen so quickly. Crime there has not disappeared, and much of the population is still deeply impoverished; it’s still a city in pain.

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Just like Dajuan and Milt before him, D.J. means an immense amount to Camden. His father and grandfather were among the best players in the country in both high school and in college, but their pro careers fell short of expectations. 

So as D.J. carries on the exalted legacy of the Wagners, there is genuine hope and justifiable expectation of him succeeding in basketball to an extent unreached by his lineal predecessors, and in doing so breaking new ground as a third-generation NBA player. It’s tempting to assume there’s pressure in that regard, but D.J. doesn’t seem to feel pressure the way other prospects might, and that kind of pressure doesn’t exist if you don’t feel it.

Dajuan Wagner grew up around the game, grew up loving the game. He dedicated his young life to it, spent countless hours honing his skills. He was garnering statewide recognition as a 5th grader, and national recognition as a middle schooler. His father was a pro ball-player. His godfather was William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley. He was a phenom if ever there was one. 

Milt was hooping in other cities and overseas for much of Dajuan’s childhood, but he provided financial support throughout, and returned home to Camden every summer. In those months, he and Dajuan would play one-on-one, always with only two dribbles allowed, so as to prioritize efficiency and decisiveness in their moves. Now, when time permits, Dajuan and D.J. play one-on-one, and it’s the same rules.

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About Brett Usher: Co-founder of the Overstated NBA Show Podcast. You can follow Brett on twitter at @hooperbole!

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