His father breathed fire on the basketball court.
His grandfather was nicknamed “Ice.”
There are times, especially with the ball in his hands and the defender in his space, when D.J. Wagner closely resembles his famous father, former Camden High School star and NBA player Dajuan Wagner.
“You watch him sometimes, and it’s like Juannie incarnate,” said Cherry Hill West coach Aaron Burt, referring to Dajuan Wagner. Burt runs Team Final, the national-caliber AAU program for which D.J. Wagner plays.
There are other times, especially when he unleashes a textbook-form jump shot that stabs the bottom of the net, when D.J. Wagner favors his famous grandfather, former Camden High star and NBA player Milt Wagner.
“People say he’s a mix,” Milt Wagner said of his grandson. “He attacks like Juannie, and he has my jump shot.”
Still a couple of weeks shy of his 14th birthday, D.J. Wagner is the talk of the South Jersey sports scene. The eighth grader at Kingsway Middle School, which doesn’t have a basketball team, has created a wave of anticipation for his arrival in high school with a game that matches his name.
“Everybody is talking about this kid,” said Brian Colbert, who was D.J. Wagner’s last football coach with the Gloucester Township Stallions in the fall of 2016. “It’s like there’s this energy out there, everybody waiting for him to get to high school.”
D.J. Wagner gave up football after his sixth-grade season. He wanted to focus on basketball, especially after watching video clips of his father and grandfather.
“I used to watch their highlights from high school to college and the NBA,” said Wagner, who will turn 14 on May 4. “That’s what made me love basketball.
“I saw how good my dad and my grandpop were, and I thought, ‘I can be that good, too.’ ”
'He is the real deal’
Former Woodbury coach Mark DiRugeris, an assistant coach at Wildwood Catholic, has worked out with Wagner. He said the 13-year-old would have averaged 15 points at the varsity level this past season.
“He is the real deal,” DiRugeris said. “He’s super aggressive. He’s fundamentally sound. He’s got a basketball IQ you don’t see in older players, much less in eighth graders.
“And he’s the hardest worker you’ll ever see.”
Wagner plays for Team Final’s 14-and-under team. That squad competed in the 15-and-under Elite bracket at the Hoop Group’s Spring Jam earlier this month at Spooky Nook sports complex in Manheim, Pa.
In his team’s first game, Wagner had 20 points in the first half of an eventual 70-48 win over a club from Maryland. Wearing his father’s old No. 21 on his jersey, he seemed to score effortlessly, driving to the basket for left-handed layups and rising up for jumpers behind the three-point line.
He spent most of the second half on the bench, slapping hands and patting backs during timeouts.
“The thing about D.J. is that he’s the quintessential teammate,” said Jason Harrigan, the former head coach at Cardinal O’Hara in the Philadelphia Catholic League and the coach of the Team Final 14-and-under team. “He’s always picking guys up.”
Colbert said Wagner was “unbelievable” as a running back in youth football, regularly breaking loose for long touchdowns, but he displayed the same team-first attitude.
“He was head-and-shoulders above other kids,” Colbert said. “But I never met a kid with that much athletic ability who was that polite.”
Wagner is also a top student. His favorite subject is math. He has earned one B in one marking period this school year. The rest of his grades have been A’s.
“He pushes himself,” said his mother, Syreeta Brittingham, a registered nurse. “I’ll be talking to another mom, and she’ll say something about a project being due, and I’ll ask D.J., and he’ll say, ‘Mom, I did that last week.’ ”
Play hard and have fun
Dajuan Wagner arrived at Camden High as a fully formed basketball superstar. He was an explosive athlete who finished his career with 3,462 points, the most in state history. He scored 100 points in a game as a senior in 2001.
Dajuan Wagner played one season at the University of Memphis and was the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft in 2002. He averaged 13.4 points as a rookie for Cleveland before illness and injuries derailed his career.
D.J. Wagner is about an inch shorter than his 6-foot-2 father. But with his loose, lean build and youthful features, he has the look of a young man with a growth spurt or two in his future.
“If he’s 6-5, he’s going to be scary,” said Milt Wagner, who is 6-5.
Dajuan Wagner played with intensity. He was a fearless, ferocious competitor.
Milt Wagner was the consummate cool customer. He scored 2,003 points in his Camden career, which ended in 1981.
Milt Wagner scored 1,836 points for Louisville and led the Cardinals to the NCAA title in 1986. He won an NBA title as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1988, and played several professional seasons in Europe.
When Milt Wagner played in the 1982 Final Four — a famous grouping that included North Carolina freshman Michael Jordan, Georgetown freshman Patrick Ewing, and Houston redshirt freshman Hakeem Olajuwon — he took the court in the New Orleans Superdome wearing black golf gloves because of an infection on his hands. He looked like a cat burglar.
D.J. Wagner has some of that smooth style to his game. He glides around the court. He never seems rushed or flustered.
He also has some of the flinty, competitive edge of his father, going hard to the basket. He responds quickly and decisively to challenges from defenders.
In a recent scrimmage against adults at Creative Arts High School in the Morgan Village section of Camden, D.J. Wagner drove the lane and scored on a layup five seconds after the opening tip.
“It’s like playing with his dad,” said former Camden star Arthur Barclay, who played with Team Final in the scrimmage. “I thought I was out there with Juannie again.”
Dajuan Wagner sits quietly during his son’s games, nodding in approval when any of the Team Final athletes makes a positive play.
“A lot of parents try to live through their kids,” Dajuan Wagner said. “My dad didn’t do that with me. I’m not doing that with D.J.
“I tell him, ‘Just play hard and have fun.’ ”
D.J. Wagner is relatively inexperienced as a basketball player. He was better-known as a football phenom until the last year or so. He has never played basketball for a school team.
And unlike his father, who used to walk to courts at Ferry Avenue, and his grandfather, who was a regular on courts at Fourth and Washington, D.J. Wagner has not grown up in the city and played pickup games with adults and older children.
“He’s more skilled than I was when I was his age,” Dajuan Wagner said. "But I was more experienced. I could walk to Ferry Avenue and get a run anytime I wanted. He’s still learning the game.”
Brittingham said the family has not made a decision on D.J. Wagner’s destination for high school. He might stay at Kingsway. He might attend a private school. He might attend Camden if the family establishes residence in the city, allowing him to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and play for the Panthers.
D.J. Wagner said he embraces the expectations that come with his last name, with the legacy established by his father and grandfather, with his lineage of fire and “Ice.”
“It inspires me and makes me want to play harder because I know the shoes I’ve got to fill,” D.J. Wagner said. “I feel like basketball is in my blood.”
A History of Success
1977-81 -- Milt Wagner scores 2,003 career points at Camden High School and wins the New Jersey state title in 1979.
1981-86 -- Milt Wagner goes to the University of Louisville and wins the NCAA title in 1986.
1987-88 -- Milt Wagner, drafted 35th overall, plays for the Los Angeles Lakers and wins the NBA title in 1988.
1990 -- Milt Wagner ends his NBA career with the Miami Heat
1997-2001 -- Dajuan Wagner scores a New Jersey state-record 3,462 points at Camden High and wins a state title in 2000.
2001-02 -- Dajuan Wagner goes to the University of Memphis and wins the NIT title in 2002.
2002-05 -- Dajuan Wagner, drafted sixth overall in 2002, plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
2006 -- Dajuan Wagner ends his NBA career with the Golden State Warriors.
2019 -- D.J. Wagner looks ahead to his high school career that will begin in the fall.