COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – D.J. Wagner arrived at USA Basketball’s training camp as the youngest of the nearly 70 teenage players invited. He turned 14 just three months ago and has yet to take a class at Camden (New Jersey) High School.
Wagner left USA Basketball’s training camp with the assembled coaches, staff and media tantalized by his potential to perpetuate his family’s vast basketball legacy. And, perhaps, secure the Wagner family a unique niche in basketball lore.
Over the course of the weekend, Wagner showcased the flash and explosiveness that helped make his father, Dajuan Wagner, the No. 6 pick in the 2002 NBA draft. Wagner also showed the smooth jumper and scoring touch that helped make his grandfather, Milt Wagner, a household name after starring at Louisville and playing professionally for more than a decade.
While it’s too early to even rank the top players of the Class of 2023, Wagner’s precocious performance at the USA Basketball camp this weekend conjured a fascinating question: Could D.J. Wagner become the first third-generation NBA player in league history?
It’s clear that Wagner is far ahead of the Class of 2023’s more acclaimed NBA prodigy – LeBron James Jr. And while finite projections are wholly unreliable before players begin high school, there’s an unusual aura of optimism surrounding the future of D.J. Wagner. “For a rising ninth grader, he’s a great player in his own right,” said Mike Jones, the head coach of USA Basketball’s Under 16/17 Junior National Team. “I’m not going to say he’s going to be better [than his father and grandpa], but the kid is special.” He added with a chuckle: “You have to think there’s going to be a lot of firsts for that family.”
Sitting in the bleachers at the Olympic Training Center to watch his son, 36-year-old Dajuan Wagner joked he was getting flashbacks. In 1998, he participated in the first-ever USA Basketball Youth Development Festival here. Dajuan laughed recalling that he roomed with Kenny Satterfield and Marcus Cox. “I’m just blessed that he can experience all this,” Dajuan Wagner said. “It’s the best thing to do what you love to do at a high level.”
Statistics provided by the NBA revealed five grandfather-and-grandson combinations and 71 father-and-son combinations in league history, everyone from the Currys to the Dunleavys to the Waltons. There are none that span all three generations, however.
“I knew that,” D.J. Wagner told Yahoo Sports, which was interesting in part because his parents and grandfather didn’t. “It’d be a great honor with the last name that I have, being the third generation. I’d be happy.”
D.J. Wagner is already 6-foot-2, although his age is evident in his slight 152-pound frame. (He quickly clarified he was more than the 146 pounds listed on the USA Basketball roster.) The first family legacy he plans to uphold also includes playing his high school ball at Camden High, where the court is named after his father and his grandfather also emerged as a star. (Former Temple star Rick Brunson is coaching him there.)
Both Milt and Dajuan won state titles at Camden and became the first father-son McDonald’s All-Americans. It’s not unreasonable to ask if D.J. could become the third, another potential first for the family.
“It’s big,” Dajuan Wagner said of his son playing for Camden. “Big for the city and my family and for him to get that experience. There’s nothing like playing for Camden High.” Added D.J.’s mother, Syreeta Brittingham, who watched the games in Colorado alongside Dajuan: “It means everything to him.”
To understand the magnitude of what D.J. Wagner is following, it’s necessary to understand the breadth of his father and grandfather’s careers. Milt Wagner’s defining career trait came as a winner, as he captured a state title at Camden (1982), national title at Louisville (1986) and an NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers (1988). He scored 1,836 points in college and remains Louisville’s No. 5 all-time leading scorer and in the top 10 in career assists.
Dajuan Wagner was such a sensation that he scored 100 points in a high school game – shooting 42-for-61 from the field – and dined with Ray Lewis after to celebrate. Allen Iverson was curious enough that he popped over from Philadelphia to watch, as Wagner finished with a state-record 3,462 points.
Dajuan Wagner came of age before the mixtape era, but possessed the deft handle, eviscerating crossover and rare explosion to have viral moves back when that meant they appeared on the nightly news. Wagner, a 6-foot-2 dynamo, scored 21.2 points per game in his lone season at Memphis, the pivotal recruit for John Calipari rebuilding his coaching career after flaming out in the NBA.
Dajuan Wagner’s name is mentioned more in folklore tones than contemporary conversation these days, as a combination of sickness and injury cut short his NBA career. He suffered from colitis, had his colon removed and could never stay healthy after teasing the NBA by averaging 13.4 points per game as a rookie.
“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” Dajuan Wagner said. “I know it wasn’t the basketball part, the basketball part came easy to me. I ain’t one of those dudes who is bitter. I got to be around my [three kids], and that’s one of the reasons D.J. is the way he is.”
Rivals.com recruiting analyst Corey Evans admits that evaluating a prospect as young as D.J. Wagner – much like LeBron James Jr. – is a tricky exercise. But for Wagner, there are already elite traits – three-level scoring, ball skills and a general feel like he belongs. Evans is optimistic that D.J. Wagner projects as a high-end prospect, the kind who could someday reach the NBA.
“He’s holding his own against kids three or four years older who are much more physically mature,” Evans said. “Project that to going up against guys his own age, and he equates to a top-of-the-line prospect.”
The USA Basketball officials and coaches left impressed by the flurry of contradictions. He was the youngest guard, yet never backed down. He came in billed as a point guard, but showed a refined ability to catch and shoot. He showed flair at times in executing inside-out dribbles and teardrop pull-ups, but had the presence to utilize the flair only when the game dictated it.
“I’ll be shocked if he wasn’t one of the faces of [grassroots basketball in] 2023,” said Corey Frazier, the head coach at John Burroughs School in St. Louis, who coached Wagner at USA Basketball. “If he’s not one of the tops guards already, he’s going to be.”
But in the family, he’s still got a ways to go. Dajuan recalls not being able to beat Milt in one-on-one games until his sophomore year of high school. He says that D.J. has come close to beating him, but it hasn’t happened yet. D.J. says his dad’s hesitation move is still on point, and Dajuan can still body D.J. down in the post. “He’s a little bit of a mixture of both [of us],” Dajuan said. “He’s long like my dad, but a lot of people say he plays like me.”
Milt Wagner concurs with Dajuan’s analysis of D.J.’s game, as he told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview: “He’s got mostly his father’s game when it comes to attacking, but he can shoot the jump shot. That was my thing, I was a shooter first. His dad was a driver first.”
The third generation of Wagners will start a trajectory toward history in a familiar environment. “It’s like a legacy, a tradition,” D.J. Wagner said of playing at Camden. “My dad and grandpa were legends at Camden High. It’s exciting.”
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