Rick Brunson says he can relate to teen-aged basketball players with high hopes and big dreams.
“I was that kid,” said Brunson, the new coach at Camden High School.
In fact, Brunson said he has double the perspective since he went through the experience on two occasions – during his own development and that of his son Jalen.
“I lived it twice,” Brunson said.
A former NBA player and coach, Brunson brings a wealth of experience to his new role as the man in charge of South Jersey’s most fabled program. Brunson, 46, was officially announced as Camden’s coach in a statement from the school district Monday morning. He is the Panthers’ third coach in three years.
Brunson replaces his old Temple teammate, Vic Carstarphen, who resigned after one season to pursue a position on Camden City Council. From 2014 through 2018, Camden was coach by John Valore.
Brunson played nine seasons in the NBA with eight teams. He was an assistant coach with Denver (2007), Chicago (2010-12), Charlotte (2012-2013) and Minnesota (2016-18).
“I’ve coached at every level,” said Brunson, who also has been a collegiate assistant and worked with athletes of various ages in player development. “I’m looking forward to working with these young kids.”
Camden went 17-11 in its one season under Carstarphen. The Panthers’ season ended with an overtime loss to eventual state champion Haddonfield in an instant classic of a South Jersey Group 2 title game March 4 at Cherry Hill East.
In a statement, Camden athletic diector Mark Phillips said, “Rick is a talented, highly dedicated coach who is committed to shaping these players into leaders on and off the court.”
Brunson has been coaching Camden during the summer, at team camps and showcase events.
“His energy and intensity, it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” said senior forward Lance Ware. “With his experience as a player and coach, I don’t think there’s another program in the state that can match that.”
Camden projects as one of the top teams in South Jersey next season and also looms as a strong contender to win a state title. The Panthers should return Ware, a 6-foot-8 swingman with scholarship offers from Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio State, among other programs, as well as juniors TaQuan Woodley and Jerome Brewer.
The 6-foot-6 Woodley, a burly rebounder and defender, and the 6-foot-6 Brewer, a natural scorer and top outside shooter, also project as NCAA Division 1 college athletes.
“We have some players who are scholarship-type players,” Brunson said. “One of my main goals is to make sure those kids get into college.”
Camden also is expected to get a major boost from freshman D.J. Wagner, the son of former Camden star Dajuan Wagner and grandson of former Camden star Milt Wagner.
The presence of Brunson and arrival of D.J. Wagner, a 6-foot-1 guard who is regarded as one of the country’s top prospects in the class of 2023, is expected to raise the profile of the Camden program, which likely will lead other talented players to join the Panthers.
Some Camden basketball supporters believe the program is on the brink of a return to the atmosphere that surrounded the team during Dajuan Wagner’s career in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the team’s games were must-see events played before capacity-plus crowds, home and away.
D.J. Wagner recently participated in the USA men’s junior national team July minicamp in Colorado Springs, Colo. The 14-year-old was the youngest athlete at the event, which featured around 70 of the top high school players in the country.
In an interview this summer, Brunson said he would demand disciplined play from his team.
“I want to have a disciplined team, an unselfish team, a team that plays defense,” Brunson said. “I want a team that is selfless. I want a team with players who do their schoolwork in school.”
Brunson said he is aware of the rich tradition of Camden’s program, and the community’s thirst for a return to the glory days. The Panthers have won 11 state titles, tied with Abraham Clark of Roselle for most of any public-school program in the state.
Seven of those titles came from 1974 to 1987 under coach Clarence Turner. In the last 31 years, Camden has won one state title – in 2000, when Dajuan Wagner and Arthur Barclay led the Panthers to the Group 3 crown as well as the Tournament of Champions title.
“It’s history,” Brunson said of Camden’s past. “As a coach, I’m trying to put a product on the floor that people who came before can appreciate.
“I want to have a team that somebody like Dajuan Wagner, somebody like Milt Wagner, and others can be proud of.”
Brunson was a star player at Salem (Mass.) High School and at Temple. He made himself into a long-time NBA player through guile and grit.
“He had to make the team every year – that’s toughness,” one veteran Camden basketball observer said of Brunson’s NBA career.
Brunson also was instrumental in the development of his son Jalen, who was a national-caliber player in the Chicago area as a high school athlete and helped Villanova win a pair of national championships. Jalen Brunson is a member of the Dallas Mavericks.
Rick Brunson, who lives in Cherry Hill, believes his long history with basketball -- as a top player and coach and also as the father of a top player -- will enable him to relate to the athletes under his care at Camden.
“I was that kid who is coming to Camden as a freshman,” Brunson said. “I had dreams. I had goals. I wanted the same things that these kids want.
“I went through it myself and I went through it with my son. I know that it’s like. I know what it takes.”