It’s loud outside, the air charged with anticipation, the city buzzing with expectation.
It’s quiet inside, the sound in the gymnasium limited to squeaking sneakers, coaches’ instructions and teammates’ encouragement.
“We’re not worried about expectations or what anybody is saying,” Camden senior forward Lance Ware said the other night, sitting on the bleachers after a practice at Creative Arts High School in the city’s Morgan Village section. “It’s strictly what happens in here.”
Camden on Friday will begin the most eagerly awaited season for South Jersey’s most fabled program since then-freshman Dajuan Wagner arrived to play for late, legendary coach Clarence Turner in the fall of 1997.
That’s because of Ware, a 6-foot-9 Kentucky recruit, and junior forwards TaQuan Woodley and Jerome Brewer Jr., both of whom hold multiple offers from NCAA Division I college programs.
But it’s also because another Wagner is suiting up in purple and gold.
For Camden, this season marks the long-awaited the debut of freshman D.J. Wagner, the son of Dajuan Wagner and the grandson of Milt Wagner, a Panthers star in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
D.J. Wagner, a 6-foot-1-and-still-growing guard whose game is a mix of his ferocious father and silky-smooth grandfather, is regarded as one of the top players in the country in the class of 2023. He already is a veteran of two minicamps with the USA Under 18 National Team in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he more than held his own with many of the top teen-aged players in the nation.
“D.J. is a great teammate, a great guy to play with,” Camden senior Tyshaan Frisbey said.
Of D.J. Wagner, Ware said, “He’s a great team player. He wants to win. That’s all the guys, that’s our No. 1 priority, winning.”
Ware, a lengthy left-hander with guard skills and an analytical approach to the game, has embraced a leadership role on a team that is likely to feature Wagner and other freshmen in prominent roles.
“I love it, honestly,” Ware said. “I’m watching guys get better while I try to get better myself. They teach me stuff just seeing what they do, and maybe they’ll mess up and I’ll learn from their mistakes. They might not realize it, but they are helping me, too.”
Frisbey said the Panthers, who will open Friday afternoon at Woodrow Wilson vs. Philadelphia Public League power Simon Gratz, will be a team that relies heavily on its defense.
“I like our mindset,” Frisbey said. “We have a defensive mindset. We’re just learning every day, getting better every day.”
Camden’s schedule includes challenging home-and-home battles within the loaded Olympic Conference National Division with rivals Camden Catholic, Paul VI and Bishop Eustace as well as non-league battles with the national-caliber likes of Roman Catholic, Patrick School and Roselle Catholic.
The Panthers also are slated to play in the Hoophall Classic on Jan. 18 in Springfield, Mass., vs. Rancho Christian of Temecula, Cal., which features 7-0 Evan Mobley, the consensus No. 1 player in the nation in the class of 2020.
“I can’t look ahead to any game,” Ware said. “That will distract from what we are doing each and every day to get better. That’s our only focus.”
The Panthers appear to be trying to keep a low profile. First-year coach Rick Brunson, a former NBA player and assistant coach, has declined to do interviews. Ware and Frisbey, the senior captains, are the only players at this time who have been permitted to speak with the media, according to a Camden school district spokeswoman.
“We try to block out as much as possible,” Frisbey said. “We try to focus on our group and us getting better every day. There’s a lot outside, but we try to keep it in.
“We’re in this as group. Everything, all the publicity, everything on the outside, we try to block out.”