LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Aaron Bradshaw was in tears.
The 7-footer kept his head down while his lanky frame leaned up against a wall at the Kentucky Exposition Center. His AAU team, the New Jersey Scholars, had just suffered its first and only loss of the Elite Youth Basketball League session last Sunday afternoon.
Bradshaw was clearly emotional — he did not want to be bothered. But seconds later, his Camden High School and Scholars teammate, D.J. Wagner, approached.
Wagner, the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2023 class, placed his arm on Bradshaw’s shoulder as he consoled him. Only a handful of words were exchanged, but Wagner made it evident he was there for his longtime running mate. The thought of losing is rare for this duo — Wagner and Bradshaw have compiled a 44-3 record over the last two years at Camden, while the Scholars have gone 11-2 in EYBL pool play this summer.
But defeat is still part of the game, and Wagner made sure he acknowledged that up front. After consoling Bradshaw, Wagner stopped by each teammate and shared a similar message.
“It really doesn’t need to be explained,” Bradshaw said of Wagner’s demeanor. “D.J. is him — through every up and down, I know that’s my guy.”
A senior to be at Camden, Wagner has already established a dynamite profile as one of the country’s best high school players. The 6-foot-3 guard has been ranked as the consensus No. 1 recruit in the 2023 class since he set foot at Camden as a freshman.
Considering Wagner’s immense talent, it took every bit of effort from the Bradley Beal Elite team to top the Scholars, 62-56.
“We game-planned for him so tough,” Brad Beal Elite coach Jerome Douglas said. “Even so, at this level, we have to acknowledge to ourselves we aren’t going to be able to stop him. The hope will always be to contain D.J. Wagner, and do what you can to keep him off-balanced. He’s a rare talent.”
The night before the Scholars’ lone defeat of the weekend, Wagner was at center stage in a much-anticipated matchup.
Several hours before the tip-off between the Scholars and LeBron James-sponsored Strive For Greatness, spectators flocked to the bleachers surrounding the main court inside the Expo Center. Wagner was the evening’s headliner, and he would be opposed by James’ eldest son, Bronny.
By the time both players and their teams took the floor for warmups, stands were packed to the brim with fans standing together shoulder-to-shoulder. Immediately after each spot was filled, onlookers jumped on top of chairs and tables in an effort to get a glance of Wagner and James. The Saturday night crowd featured several NBA players in attendance, including Beal, Russell Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony.
When the Scholars took their place in stretching lines, Wagner affixed himself in the middle. With each movement, Wagner proceeded with precision and purpose, similar to the way he expertly crosses over defenders, attacks the basket, and finishes with his opposite hand. He exudes maximum effort without wasted movement. Spectators carefully observed Wagner, who has received comparisons to NBA point guards Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard.
The environment surrounding Wagner from the weekend carried extra significance. University of Louisville men’s basketball coach Kenny Payne recently hired D.J.’s grandfather, Milt Wagner, as the program’s director of player development and alumni relations. Heading into his senior year at Camden, D.J. remains uncommitted. His top two college suitors are Louisville and Kentucky.
D.J.’s father, Dajuan Wagner, was coached by Kentucky’s John Calipari at Memphis, while Payne was Milt’s teammate on Louisville’s 1986 national championship team. D.J. has spent his entire life breaking ankles at courts across the tri-state area, but his future home is likely within the Bluegrass State.
Throughout Memorial Day weekend, fans sporting gear from both in-state schools consistently followed Wagner around the gym and across the city. They peppered him with questions about his recruitment, asked for selfies, and adored the nation’s top recruit. Over five games spanning three days, Wagner didn’t disappoint, averaging 19 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.4 steals.
The marquee matchup was billed as D.J. Wagner vs. Bronny James, but it was the complete effort from the N.J. Scholars that stole the show. Wagner was the only player from either team to play the entire game. He tallied 14 points with four assists; defensively, Wagner and his teammates limited James to just six points. James made just 2 of 14 shots, including a forgettable 0-for-6 from beyond the three-point line.
Wagner’s flashy dribble moves generated the loudest applause from the sold-out crowd, while his natural ability to create for his teammates led the Scholars to a decisive 10-point victory over Strive For Greatness.
Said lifelong Cardinals fan Larry Lewandowski: “Watching D.J. Wagner was like Christmas morning for us in Louisville.”