DeJuan Wagner: One More Road To Cross

By Ben Osborne

Located in suburban Voorhees, NJ, the Coliseum Fitness Center has your typical workout essentials—weights, bikes and a couple of full courts. Luckily for Dajuan Wagner, the Camden HS senior with one eye on the University of Memphis and the other on the NBA, the courts have what most pick-up gyms don’t: two distinct three-point arcs. They come in handy when you work out like Wagner does.

The first drill Wagner runs on this March afternoon involves catching a pass at the 23-9 pro line, faking a shot, taking one hard dribble and pulling up for the 19-9 college triple. Dajuan starts at one baseline and needs to get to the other, seven stations later. Advancing requires making three straight off-the-dribble shots after dribbling right, then three more after dribbling left. Make two straight and miss, start over. Misses send an otherwise cool Wagner—rocking extra-long Nike shorts, no shirt and two glistening earrings—into four-lettered fury.

When he finishes that killer drill, Wagner is timed by his coach-for-the-day, family friend Russell Cook, in a couple of baseline-to-baseline sprints. Next come pro 3s. No water, no rest, just shots. Again, Dajuan has to make three straight to advance, but one’s easy. When it comes to catch-and-shoot threes—even from pro distance—Wagner is money like JT.

Then there’s more sprints, 60 or so free throws, more long-range bombs. And not one water break the entire hour-long session. As Cook leaves, he offers an ominous reminder: “I’ll see you at 4:30 tomorrow, and we’re really going to work then.” Really? I’m out of breath just from watching this apparently light workout.

For a second I wonder if re-telling the workout regimen of Dajuan Wagner, he of the 100-point game and perhaps the most hyped prep baller of his era, is like sharing secrets. But the “secret” really ain’t a secret. It’s hard work. Just knowing the things Wagner does to improve will do little to help the shorties out there. Nope. You need to be able to do the things he does. That means spending every afternoon at the end of your senior year—a time usually spent chillin’ and chasing girls—at the gym.

“Hard work is why I’m as good as I am,” Wagner says. “Even when I was real young, I wasn’t just out playing, being around basketball. I was playing seriously. Really practicing.”

There’s your secret. If you want to be a basketball star, it helps to have genes like Dajuan’s. The ones that come from his pops, Milt Wagner, the former Louisville star and 53-game NBA vet. It helps to live in Camden, which, for all its problems, worships basketball and has been wildly supportive of Dajuan. And it helps that, through his dad, his dad’s friends and the sheer fame he has generated since ninth grade, Dajuan can count Louisville native Allan Houston and Sixers star Allen Iverson as friends and advisors.

But without work, those things don’t add up to shit. And for Dajuan, the work doesn’t end on the court. All winter, whether after a game that saw him put up 44 points, 5 boards and 6 assists—his averages—or after a team practice, or after one of those punishing workouts, Wagner would go study. Not schoolwork, even though his mother does make sure Juanny gets that done. He studies the game. “I watch basketball all the time,” he says. “I watch it all, every night pretty much. I like Dickie V doing college, and I got the League Pass so I can watch all the pro games. I like to see how guys play.”

After the workout, Wagner and a few of his boys hit Foot 21, the sneaker shop a block from Dajuan’s home. The store’s name is an unspoken homage to Dajuan’s uniform number. “Gotta get some new Tims,” Juanny says over back slaps and high fives from well-wishing locals. Then there’s a brief stop at his house, a modest home on a pothole-laced street in the heart of Camden. After dinner in downtown Philly, I meet up again with Dajuan, his cousin and Camden teammate James Pulliam, and his godfather William Wesley (known simply and universally as “Wes”) at the First Union Center. It’s the night of the NCAA Sweet 16, pitting Kentucky against USC and Duke against UCLA.

In essence, I’m watching Dajuan watch his future. When his interest is piqued by a Keith Bogans drive or Jason Williams pull-up, Dajuan squints like a kid in the back of the classroom. Although scouts have estimated that Wagner, a 6-2 lead guard, would be the first-ever high schooler under 6-5 to get drafted—and probably go Lottery to boot—he’s going to college. That makes the guys on the court his future comp, and that makes the NCAAs Wagner’s focus. “I think we’re going to go real far next season,” Wagner says of Memphis, which made the NIT semis this past season. “We’ve got good freshmen coming in, we’ve got Coach Calipari, and I think I’ll play well. I know I’m going to score.”

So does Calipari, a Sixers assistant before taking the Memphis job. “We want him to score the ball,” Cal says. “We’re going to use him like we used to use Allen Iverson, play him on the baseline, run pick-and-rolls. Get him out in the front of the break where he can convert instead of being the guy that has to make the first pass. Allen went from being an exciting player to a winning player who is universally respected around the NBA. Larry Brown said, ‘What can we do to make Allen the best he can be?’ They put him on the baseline. Allen still has some work to do on defense, but he’s great on offense. That’s the way we’ll try to use Dajuan.”

Those comparisons are music to Dajuan’s ears. “Allen is the guy I really like,” Wagner says. “I was watching him closely since he was in college.”

Six days later, The Dajuan Wagner Show has moved on to Durham, NC, host of the 2001 McDonald’s All-American Game. There are plenty of plot lines—the centers who might go pro, the high jumpers going to Florida—but Dajuan trumps them all. Even at practice, a Camden presence is felt. Already, there are people walking around in “Wagner 21” shirts.

Amidst photo ops with his father—now an assistant at Memphis, Milt is in town for the festivities—and McDonald’s Game advisor John Wooden, Dajuan chills on the baseline. “This is nothing,” he says of the fans on hand. “There’s tons of people from Camden down here. You watch tonight, there’s going to be 300 deep. That’s how they do in Camden.”

He’s right. An hour before tipoff, Camden has taken over an entire section of Cameron Indoor Stadium, much to the chagrin of some members of the whitebread press corps. Wearing mostly retro NBA gear, Camden gear or bootleg “Wagner” shirts, the men, women and children of Camden, NJ, have come to see their hero. Soon, the group unfurls a huge homemade banner: “Wagner’s World.” Just before the game begins, as Dajuan maintains his cool and distant stare, all eyes are on him and his dad. Milt, who scored nine points in the ’81 game (MJ dropped 30), is the first McDonald’s alum to have a son in the game, and the folks in charge figure that warrants a ceremony.

The game, a 131-125 West victory, proves entertaining and particularly well played by high school all-star standards. Dajuan’s controlled excellence is a big reason why. Wagner hits 7-of-15 field goals (including 4-of-9 threes) and 7-of-8 FTs for a team-high 25 points. He adds 7 boards, 3 assists and 3 steals, but afterward cares only about the loss. “I played OK, but we didn’t get the win,” he says. “Even in a game like this, I should’ve helped my team win.”

Wagner’s performance does not take place in a vacuum—his classmates know the deal. “He deserves all the attention he gets,” says Jawad Williams, a North Carolina-bound swingman from the victorious West squad. “He’s always been on top, since ninth grade through tonight. He scored 100 points in a game, and not too many people could say they did that.”

The pro scouts, who see the scoring and all-around skills as well as a 205-pound body that stretches the fabric on his 2XL warm-up, know the deal too. Stephen Wacaser of The Sporting News says scouts have praised Wagner’s passing and “JR Rider-like scoring ability.”

And now the questions. “Does tonight make you rethink going pro?” I ask him postgame. “Nope. That’s for the big guys like Eddy [Curry] and them. If I was 6-5, I’d go. But at my size, I’ve got too much to prove. I’ve got to work on my defensive intensity and show that I can be a combo guard at that level. Coach Calipari is the perfect person to help me with all that.”

Dajuan’s attitude has been dissected way too many times. Is he a tad aloof? Maybe, but in other kids that’s shyness. A little cocky about his game? In other kids that’s self-esteem. Fact is he’s an 18-year-old, extremely talented basketball player. Take from that what you will.

Besides, show Dajuan you really know your hoops, and he warms up like a microwave. That night in Philly, Juanny and I couldn’t get enough of breaking down players and talking about what they’d do at the next level. Though he wouldn’t answer the pro question definitively until after the McDonald’s Game, Juanny pretty much showed his hand the first night we spoke. That’s when he peppered me with questions about Jazz rookie and college skipper DeShawn Stevenson, asking, “What does he do in Utah?” and “Isn’t he unhappy?” I didn’t have many answers, but his fears were obvious enough.

Back at Cameron, the McDonald’s Game is the last Wagner will play on an official stage as a Camden player. A four-year star, he leaves high school with a state championship and the all-time New Jersey scoring record. The fact that his days as a Camden Panther are over is both shocking and sad to Dajuan. “It’s really weird,” he says. “It hasn’t even hit me yet. It feels like it went so fast. My whole life growing up I had dreamed of playing for Camden. There’s nothing like playing for Camden. There’s nothing like Camden fans. It’s real weird that it’s over.”
Really, though, Wagner’s basketball career is just beginning.