High school No. 1 DJ Wagner announced his commitment to Kentucky men’s basketball on Monday, choosing the Wildcats over Louisville.
Wagner’s dedication gives John Calipari and Kentucky the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. If the Wildcats finish the cycle at the top – and Wagner’s promise will likely seal that – it will be the seventh time since Calipari took over at Lexington that Kentucky has the top-ranked recruiting class. Wagner is also the fourth No. 1 recruit to commit to the Wildcats under Calipari, following Shaedon Sharpe, Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis.
“This was an extremely difficult decision that I went back and forth with for a long time. That’s why it took so long,” Wagner told ESPN. “I feel very comfortable with my decision. Coach John Calipari was always sincere and honest with me. He said he would stay with me until the wheels come off the car anyway. And that meant so much to me. Then I watched him coach, I felt the intensity, how he disciplines his team and how he breaks it down.”
“The atmosphere in Kentucky is incredible,” he added. “I’ve been there several times and that’s where I feel most comfortable.”
Wagner was the subject of an intense recruiting battle between rivals in the state of Kentucky and Louisville, with strong family ties to both programs. Calipari coached Wagner’s father, Dajuan, at Memphis, and freshman Louisville coach Kenny Payne played with Wagner’s grandfather, Milt, on Louisville’s 1986 national championship team.
In May, Payne Milt hired Wagner as director of the player development and alumni relations program — a similar move to when Calipari hired Milt in Memphis in 2000. Wagner’s stepbrother, Kareem Watkins, is a walk-on in Kentucky.
“My older brother Kareem is on the team,” he said. “That made a huge difference. I look up to him; we are very close.
“My grandfather was always my grandfather throughout the process. He never tried to recruit me. He always said what is best for me. He has been a mentor in my life and he has helped me develop into the player and person that I am. He will always be family first. Nothing but love for him.”
Wagner, a 6-foot-3 guard from Camden High School (New Jersey), has been considered the top contender in the class of 2023 since the start of his high school career. He averaged 18.8 points and 4 points last spring and summer. .9 assists on the Nike EYBL circuit with the NJ Scholars grassroots program, including nine 20-point efforts in 18 games. As a high school senior last season, Wagner averaged 19.8 points and led Camden to a New Jersey state championship.
Wagner also helped lead USA Basketball to a gold medal at the 2022 FIBA U17 World Championships, starting all seven games and averaging 9.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists.
He brings a real competitive spirit to the game; winning is paramount for Wagner. He went to USA Basketball with the mindset of winning a gold medal. He is at his best on the open field and plays in transition. He can rebound defensively and then push the ball across the floor just as well as anyone in the class. He puts a lot of pressure on the defense with his speed to score and his vision to give the assist. He is a points guard in the form of Cleveland Cavaliers star Darius Garland.
When play slows down at half court, Wagner’s improvement from the perimeter has been a plus. He learns how to orchestrate pick-and-rolls and he’s always been effective as a downhill penetrator, getting into the paint and finishing with high-level body control. He is decisive once in the paint and knows when to pull up, jump and stop and use his float or kick to an open teammate for a shot. Defensively, he is effective at guarding the ball and also has good anticipation off the ball.
Wagner joins a Kentucky class that now includes four of the top eight prospects in the 2023 class, with Justin Edwards (No. 2), Aaron Bradshaw (No. 5) and Robert Dillingham (No. 8) already in the group. The Wildcats also signed No. 26-ranked prospect Reed Sheppard.
This is only the third time in the past 10 years that a school has landed four top-10 candidates in the same class: Kentucky in 2013, with five of the top nine, and Duke in 2017.
“I’m there to win,” said Wagner. “Winning comes first for me and I want to help Kentucky win as much as possible.”