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Camden opens basketball season with victory over Gratz

Freshman D.J. Wagner scored 15 in his highly-anticipated debut and senior Lance Ware and junior TaQuan Woodley dominated the paint as the Panthers topped the previously unbeaten Bulldogs.

Camden freshman D.J. Wagner with the pass against Gratz during the Panthers' 72-52 win over the Bulldogs.
Camden freshman D.J. Wagner with the pass against Gratz during the Panthers' 72-52 win over the Bulldogs.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

No matter how many points D.J. Wagner scores in his career at Camden – 2,000-plus, like his grandfather or 3,000-plus, like his father – there always will be something special about his first two.

That’s because he scored them before his career officially began.

Wagner made two free throws on an empty court, as a result of a technical foul before the clock started in Camden’s 72-52 victory over Philadelphia Public League power Simon Gratz on Friday afternoon.

Wagner, a freshman guard and the youngest member of the first family of Camden basketball, scored 15 in his debut before a capacity crowd at Woodrow Wilson High School that included a Who’s Who of former Panther players.

Senior swingman Lance Ware collected 12 points with 11 rebounds, and junior forward TaQuan Woodley generated 16 rebounds with five blocks, as Camden (1-0) used its size advantage to control play against a previously undefeated opponent.

“This is what we’ve been practicing for,” said Ware, a Kentucky recruit. “You probably could hear us down in the locker room, we were so hyped.”

With the 6-foot-9 Ware, the 6-foot-7 Woodley, and 6-foot-7 junior Jerome Brewer (13 points, six rebounds) dominating in the paint, Camden never trailed after Gratz senior guard Yassir Stover hit a three-pointer for a 3-2 lead in the opening minute.

Stover scored 17, making five three-pointers. But Gratz, which entered with an 8-0 record that included a victory over Public League preseason-favorite Imhotep Charter, couldn’t match up with Camden’s size or equal the home team’s first-half intensity.

“This was a big day for Camden, and we didn’t respond to that early in the game,” said Gratz coach Lynard Stewart, whose team was assessed with the pregame technical foul for a late addition to the score book. “Their size is a problem [for opponents]. You could tell it was their first game. They probably are going to be 10 times better than this.”

The crowd included Milt and Dajuan Wagner -- D.J. Wagner’s grandfather and father, respectively, who scored 2,003 and 3,462 career points -- as well as former Camden stars Billy Thompson, Kevin Walls, Arthur Barclay, Denny Brown, and Vic Carstarphen.

“These guys were here before us, and they know what we’re trying to do,” Ware said. “When you have legends down in the locker room before the game, you can just pick their brains, see what they think, because they have all this wisdom.”

The game also marked the debut of Camden coach Rick Brunson, a former NBA player and assistant coach. Brunson has declined to do interviews.

Ware and Tyshaan Frisbey, a fellow senior captain, are the only Camden players permitted to speak the media.

“I liked our mindset,” said Frisbey, who bounced off the bench to score 5 points. “It was different, a big crowd, but we forgot about crowd and played our game."

Camden missed most of its outside shots but compensated with offensive rebounding and defensive diligence. The Panthers’ depth was a factor, with nine players scoring.

“First-game jitters,” Ware said of the Panthers.

The super-charged scene in the gymnasium reflected the air of anticipation around the Panthers, especially among long-time fans of the program. Camden supporters sense this team’s potential to capture the school’s 12th state title.

The most promising sign for Camden probably was that Panthers beat a battled-tested opponent by 20 on a day when they showed room for improvement, especially at the offensive end.

Wagner, a 6-foot-1 guard regarded as one of the country’s top players in the class of 2023, missed six of his first seven field-goal attempts, but he swished a pair of three-pointers in the second quarter, to the crowd’s delight.

“He played great,” Ware said of Wagner. “He played for his team. He didn’t get caught up in anything else. Everybody knows the deal, but he’s not going to let that affect him. He’s playing for the team, and he’s playing hard.”

Gratz 10 7 22 13 – 52

Camden 16 21 14 21 – 72

G: Yasir Roue 7, Yassir Stover 17, Kiyon Gorden 4, Duane Satchel 4, Ross Carter 10, Orandi Ali 1, Jordan Roue 3, Eddie Harris 6.

C: Lance Ware 12, D.J. Wagner 15, TaQuan Woodley 6, Jerome Brewer 13, Dian Medley 4, Sebastian Robinson 9, Tyshaan Frisbey 5, Cornelius Robinson 2, Devin Benson 6.