SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — For the last 20 years, the top high school players and teams from across the country have converged on Springfield, the birthplace of basketball, for the Hoophall Classic, high school basketball’s premier showcase event.
The annual tournament has served as a springboard to NBA stardom for so many players, with the likes of Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Zion Williamson, and Ben Simmons among the event’s star-studded NBA alumni.
This year was no different, as 60 players ranked in the senior, junior, and sophomore recruiting classes by ESPN, including 19 of the top 25 players in the 2022 class, participated in the five-day event. Amid all that star power, two of the main attractions on display at Springfield College’s Blake Arena hailed from the Philadelphia area: Camden’s D.J. Wagner and Westtown’s Dereck Lively.
Wagner, a point guard, and the son of former NBA lottery pick Dajuan Wagner and the grandson of ex-NBA player Milt Wagner, is the No. 1-ranked junior in the country. Lively, a center from Chester, is ranked the No. 2 player in the senior class by ESPN and has signed with Duke. With 2022 No. 1 player Shaedon Sharpe already enrolled and on campus at the University of Kentucky, the Philadelphia region can lay claim to both the No. 1 high school senior and junior in the country.
As Lively put it when asked by The Inquirer about the Philadelphia influence on his game, basketball players from the Philly area need to know how to play with “grit.”
‘I love that kind of stuff’
Maybe the most-hyped recruit at the 2022 Hoophall Classic, Wagner was looking to put on a show in his Hoophall debut. Things did not go as planned.
Wagner, who has taken official visits to Kentucky and Memphis, managed just 12 points on 5-of-20 shooting and also had five turnovers as No. 1 Camden was blown out, 66-48, by No. 6 Calvary Christian of Florida. The loss marked the second straight poor game for Wagner and the second straight defeat for Camden, which had won 44 straight games before losing to powerhouse Montverde (Fla.) on Thursday.
Would the suddenly increasing pressure and the national TV stage get to Wagner? Not a chance.
The No. 1 ranked junior in the ESPN 60 showed what all the hype is about on Monday, pouring in 21 points and leading Camden to an impressive 63-55 win over Milton (Georgia). What stood out most was how cool and unfazed by the moment Wagner looked, especially given his recent struggles.
“I love that kind of stuff,” Wagner said about the recent adversity he and his team have faced. “I love taking on a challenge. Playing against great teams, teams that are very talented. I love that kind of stuff.”
Then again, Wagner is used to pressure, having grown up the son of Dajuan Wagner, New Jersey high school basketball’s all-time leading scorer (3,462 points), who starred at the University of Memphis under John Calipari (who is recruiting D.J. to Kentucky), and later had a promising NBA career cut short because of severe ulcerative colitis. D.J.’s grandfather Milt is also a Camden legend and won an NCAA title at Louisville (1986) and an NBA title with the Lakers (1988). In other words, pressure is nothing new for D.J.
“We were coming in with a chip on our shoulder,” Wagner said after the win. “Just forgetting about the last game. Just having a short-term memory to that kind of stuff, not worrying about losing and stuff like that. Just seeing what we can do better and using the game as a learning lesson. Today we just came in with a chip on our shoulder and we wanted to win.”
That chip on Wagner’s shoulder was apparent from the opening whistle, as he swished a three from the wing on Camden’s first possession. He followed that up with a long two from the top of the key and went on to score nine of Camden’s first 15 points as the Panthers ran out to a 15-8 lead.
Wagner played with great tempo and shot an efficient 9-of-19 from the field and 3-of-7 from deep. He might not have started the Hoophall Classic like he wanted, but on Monday, Wagner finished it in style and solidified his No. 1 ranking.
The Mayor of Westtown
It only takes one look at Lively to realize he’s not your typical high school senior. Standing 7-foot-2 and a lean 220 pounds, Lively typically dwarfs everyone else on the hardwood.
Case in point: In Friday’s headliner against Mikey Williams and Vertical Academy of North Carolina, Vertical didn’t even contest the opening tip, instead sending out 5-foot-9 point guard, Abdul Beyah, to line up against Lively and produce the photo of the tournament.
But Lively is special beyond being a 7-footer, as he runs the floor like a guard, plays above the rim at both ends of the floor, and even can step out and hit a three-point shot. On the opening possession against Vertical, he even showcased his vision, drawing a double team and promptly delivering a perfect drop pass for a Westtown layup. Four minutes later he rose above the crowd, seemingly from nowhere, for the first of a handful of putback dunks.
After a relatively quiet first quarter and a half, Lively sprang to life late in the second with a dominant two-minute spurt that may have Mike Krzyzewski contemplating pushing back retirement one more year. First, he slammed home a Quin Berger miss with a putback dunk, then the next time down the floor drained a straightaway three, displaying a smooth stroke for his size. He capped it off by blocking three consecutive Vertical Academy shots before sprinting the length of the floor and finishing with another dunk with 1:14 remaining in the half.
In this sequence, Lively showcased all the attributes — size, athleticism, shot-blocking prowess, competitiveness, and the ability to run the floor — that made him one of the most in-demand prospects in the country before he signed with Duke. He also had won over the sold-out arena, full of locals who had watched their team Springfield Central play the previous game. Lively’s name rang out from the rickety wooden bleachers and kids, some of them around the same age as Lively, bellowed for him to sign autographs.
“It’s always good to compete,” Lively told The Inquirer after the game. “To play against another great team and compete is something I am always looking for. I’m not shying away from competition I just want to go against it.”
Despite Westtown losing, 67-65, Lively put together a stat line to remember: 22 points, 20 rebounds, 6 blocks, and 4 assists. Vertical Academy coach Chandler Scott interrupted Lively’s postgame interview to shake his hand and say “22 and 20, that’s tough.”
Lively acknowledged he has room to grow.
“I need to slow down more in my game because when I get sped up, that is when I make the wrong reads, wrong passes,” Lively said. “And I really just need to fine-tune my game in the middle, because if I fine-tune my game in the middle that will make the outside play even easier.”
Two days later, Lively was largely held in check offensively (five points) as Westtown lost to New Jersey’s Gill St. Bernard’s, 70-60. While Lively didn’t have his best game, he did rack up nine rebounds and four blocks and in what he calls a hallmark of Philly basketball, was able to “keep that grit.”
That grit and the future of Philly area basketball are in good hands with Lively and Wagner.