As most expected, Kentucky 247Sports Composite No. Committed 1 overall prospect and Camden (NJ) 5-star combo guard DJ Wagner Monday.
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After all, Wagner builds on both head coaches John Calipari and the British program run deep.
He is the son of Dajuan Wagner, the very first Calipari one-and-done in Memphis. The elder Wagner, who once scored 100 points in a high school game, averaged 21.2 points per game as a freshman for the Tigers in 2001-02. He was looking to return to Memphis for his second season, but Calipari famously tore up his scholarship when Wagner was drafted sixth overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2002 NBA draft. Wagner, who was later diagnosed with colitis and had surgery to remove his colon effectively ended his NBA career after three seasons, credits Calipari with his only major NBA payday.
Wagner is the brother of Kentucky Walk-on Guard Karem Watkins and a former high school teammate of the British forward lance goods. And he’s both the high school and travel teammate of the 5-star center Aaron Bradshawwho also signed with the Wildcats on Monday.
But Wagner’s recruitment was anything but straightforward.
Yes, Wagner was considered a slam dunk for Kentucky until Louisville was shut down Kenny Paynewho in turn hired his former Cardinals teammate and Wagner’s grandfather, Milt Wagnerin an administrative role.
Hiring a family member had already cost Kentucky another #1 prospect Cade Cunningham to Oklahoma State in 2020.
“When Kenny Payne was hired, a lot of people expected him to hire Milt independently of the DJ, and you had to give them a competitive edge as a contender,” said Travis Branham, 247Sports national recruitment analyst CatsPause.com Tuesday. “Very rarely has a family member on the team lost a recruitment.”
In the spring, Branham and many others switched their 247Sports Crystal Ball picks from Kentucky to Louisville.
But Kentucky would not go easy.
Less than 72 hours after the Wildcats’ surprise loss to 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Calipari and the entire British coaching staff were in New Jersey to watch Wagner in a clear show of force as the Tournament of Champions finals in New Jersey. Calipari and co then made their way to Málaga, Spain to see Wagner compete for Team USA at the FIBA U17 World Cup, where he averaged 9.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.9 steals in 19.8 minutes per game and helped lead the Americans to a perfect 7-0 and a gold medal.
“Fast forward to July, that’s when things really started to change after the FIBA World Championship. That’s when Kentucky started pulling back,” Branham said. “I personally think DJ always wanted to end up in Kentucky, it was just a process to get there. They just kept building relationships with everyone around DJ and that takes time. When recruiting, you don’t just recruit a kid. You have to build relationships with everyone around them.”
Then, in October, he signed a NIL deal with Nike, pretty much eliminating any remaining chance that Wagner would end up in Louisville, an Adidas-sponsored school.
“There were some rumors that he might go a pro route like the G League, but Kentucky emerged victorious,” Branham said. “That was the nail in the coffin in a way. You could sign a Nike deal and end up turning pro. It doesn’t tie you to Kentucky, but it paints the picture pretty clearly that he won’t go to Adidas school.”
To make matters worse, the Cardinals got off to a 2-0 start with losses to Bellarmine and Wright State, as well as an exhibition loss to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne to give the Payne era a rocky start.
“I don’t think that played a big role,” Branham said. “Maybe it put him off going to Louisville because they’re going through a rebuilding period and because he’s such a competitor. He would want to do his best to win a national championship, but he’s pretty much always wanted to go to Kentucky.”
What made recruitment a little more difficult to project was Wagner’s old-fashioned approach to his recruitment. It’s not often that a high-profile recruit like Wagner keeps a low profile when it comes to his recruitment. He never officially announced any offers, visits, finalists, etc. and chose to let his play do the talking, which was actually refreshing and really impressive.
“It’s extremely rare,” Branham said. “The Wagners are all private individuals. They don’t seek the limelight. He just wants to go outside and hop. He doesn’t want to be a social media star. He doesn’t want to build a brand. He lets his brand be built on the basketball court.”