Player of the Year: Jr. D.J. Wagner, Camden
For the second consecutive year, Wagner was named the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year. The Camden guard joined elite company becoming only the fourth player to win the award in back-to-back seasons. Wagner joins former Villanova standout Tim Thomas, Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns and Alabama guard Jahvon Quinerly as the only players to receive the honor two years in a row.
And rightfully so.
The consensus No. 1 player nationally in the Class of 2023 paced Camden to its first NJSIAA state championship since 2000. Wagner contributed a game-high 20 points in the Panthers’ 93-52 win over Newark Central at Jersey Mike’s Arena in Piscataway on March 13. Four days later, he lifted Camden to its first Tournament of Champions final since 2000 with a 30-point performance in a 60-50 win over Group 4 state champion Elizabeth in the TOC semifinals.
The Panthers quest to their first TOC title since 2000 ended with a heartbreaking 61-58 loss to Roselle Catholic in overtime. Despite the outcome, Wagner managed to produce a game-high 23 points. He also finished with a game-high 25 points in a 67-64 win over the Lions in the GEICO ESPN High School Basketball Showcase in Camden last December.
The 6-foot-3 combo guard nearly matched his career-high of 32 points with 31 in a 100-54 win over Group 3 state champion and crosstown rival Woodrow Wilson on January 25. He proceeded to surpass the previous mark with a career-best 33 in a 92-42 win over Manchester Township in the South Jersey Group 2 semifinals. Wagner also notched a team-best 23 points in a key 76-64 win over Lenape in early January.
He displayed his talents on the national stage with 21-point performances in victories over nationally-ranked Milton (GA) and Sierra Canyon (CA). His team-high 18 points also lifted Camden past Gill St. Bernard’s, 57-55, at the Metro Classic in Toms River on February 3.
The reigning South Jersey Sports Zone Player of the Year currently holds offers from Kentucky, Memphis, Syracuse, Temple, Villanova and Penn State. Wildcats coach John Calipari was accompanied by assistant coach Orlando Antigua to see Wagner compete in the TOC final at Rutgers University on March 20. Antigua recruited the Camden junior, per 247Sports. The 2022 SJ Sports Zone Olympic Conference Player of the Year visited Kentucky last October.
“D.J. is D.J.,” Camden coach Rick Brunson said. “He’s always gonna give 110 percent.”
Coach of the Year: Kenny Avent, Woodrow Wilson
In his first season on Federal Street in East Camden, Avent guided the Tigers to their first NJSIAA state championship since 1985. Woodrow Wilson defeated Ramapo, 43-42, to secure the Group 3 title at Rutgers University on March 13. The Tigers also secured their first sectional crown since 1991 with a 47-40 win over Burlington Township in the South Jersey Group 3 final on March 8.
“It’s a magical season,” Avent said. “I just wanted to change the culture. I told them from Day One — we want to win Group 3. A lot of people probably didn’t believe me and had good reason not to believe me. But I know if we could put it together we had enough talent to be successful.”
The Woodrow Wilson coach spent the last six seasons coaching in Delaware, but is no unfamiliar face in the South Jersey basketball realm. Avent became a three-time sectional champion after winning back-to-back South Jersey Group 1 titles at Woodbury in 2009 and 2010.
However, he was unaware of the South Jersey basketball landscape and the Tigers’ mediocrity after his relocation to the First State.
Wilson’s struggling basketball program had totaled 28 wins combined over the past nine seasons. In their last 100 games going into the season, the Tigers had only accumulated 10 victories.
“I’ve been coaching in Delaware for the last six years and hadn’t really been following South Jersey basketball,” Avent said. “So I had no idea how bad the state of the program (was).”
The first-year coach nearly matched that mark of 28 wins over nine seasons in a single campaign with a 22-7 record this winter.
After losing its first game of the season to Cape-Atlantic League power Egg Harbor Township, 64-60, Wilson rattled off seven consecutive victories with quality wins against Clearview, Camden Catholic, Paul VI, Eastern and Bishop Eustace.
The Tigers won 12 out of their last 14 games including victories over Lenape, Dover (DE), Paul VI, Deptford, Moorestown and Manasquan before rallying past Ramapo in the Group 3 state final. The Tigers bowed out perennial parochial power Bergen Catholic, 69-52, in the Tournament of Champions quarterfinals.
“It’s something no one could have ever foreseen,” Avent said. “I’m still kind of in awe. Basketball is the gift that keeps on giving. I love coaching. I love mentoring.”
Team of the Year: Camden
The consensus No. 1 public school in the Garden State captured its first NJSIAA state championship since 2000 with a 93-52 win over Newark Central on March 13. The Panthers concluded the campaign with a 31-3 record and have won 68 out of their last 69 contests against opponents from New Jersey.
Despite falling to Roselle Catholic in the Tournament of Champions final, Camden defeated the Lions, 67-64, in the GEICO ESPN High School Basketball Showcase last December. The Panthers also bolstered their resume with wins over nationally-ranked Sierra Canyon (CA) and Milton (GA), and defeated PIAA Class 6A state finalist Archbishop Wood (PA) by 32 points.
Rick Brunson’s crew finished a perfect 15-0 in Olympic Conference play with a pair of wins over Woodrow Wilson, Camden Catholic, Paul VI and Bishop Eustace. Camden also earned quality wins over in-state foes Lenape, Gill St. Bernard’s, Rutgers Prep, St. Peter’s Prep, Holy Spirit, St. Augustine, Manchester Township, Rumson-Fair Haven and Group 4 state champion Elizabeth in the TOC semifinals.
The Panthers only two out-of-state losses came at the hands of Montverde Academy (FL), ranked fourth nationally in the ESPN SCNext Top 25, and eighth-ranked Calvary Christian (FL).
Camden is 73-4 over the past three seasons and hasn’t suffered a setback to a South Jersey opponent since March 4, 2019 — a 69-67 loss to Haddonfield in the South Jersey Group 2 final.
The Panthers finished the campaign as the top-ranked team in the South Jersey Sports Zone Final Top 30 for the second year in a row.
Olympic Conference First Team
Jr. D.J. Wagner, Camden
Jr. Aaron Bradshaw, Camden
Sr. Derek Simpson, Lenape
Sr. Zoe Holman, Woodrow Wilson
Sr. Andrew Ball, Shawnee
Olympic Conference Second Team
Jr. Cian Medley, Camden
Sr. Elijah Perkins, Camden
Sr. E.J. Matthews-Spratley, Cherry Hill East
Sr. Drew Greene, Cherry Hill East
Sr. Tayvon Gaither, Lenape
Olympic Conference Third Team
Fr. Emmanuel Joe-Samuel, Paul VI
Jr. Dasear Haskins, Camden
Jr. Noah Payne, Eastern
Sr. Aidan Anderson, Lenape
Sr. Jaden Arline, Paul VI
Olympic Conference Honorable Mentions
Fr. Tobe Nwobu, Camden Catholic
So. Will Love, Woodrow Wilson
So. Reggie Selden, Bishop Eustace
Jr. Jason Brice, Eastern
Jr. James Iannelli, Bishop Eustace
Jr. Cairo Rivera, Paul VI
Sr. Rasheer Fleming, Camden
Sr. Justin Smith, Cherry Hill West
Sr. Andrew “Duce” Prete, Camden Catholic
Sr. Jake Green, Cherry Hill East
Sr. Quamir Land, Washington Township
Sr. Jalen Holmes, Cherry Hill East
Sr. Alijah Smith, Woodrow Wilson
Sr. Kanye Paxton, Cherry Hill West
Sr. Bryce Nwobu, Cherokee