D.J. Wagner’s signature performance lifts Camden past Imhotep Charter in battle of national powers
Camden's D.J. Wagner (21) dribbles as Imhotep Charter's Ahmad Nowell (0) defends in the basketball game played at Hagan Arena on the campus of Saint Joseph's University on Saturday, January 28, 2022. David Anyanwu for D2 Sports Network
PHILADELPHIA - Camden High School senior D.J. Wagner wasn't born yet when four-time NBA champion LeBron James and his Akron, Ohio based St. Vincent-St. Mary high school basketball team traveled to the Palestra in Philadelphia.
The Fighting Irish faced off against Strawberry Mansion (Pa.) in a televised broadcast on CN8 (now NBC Sports Philadelphia) on December 22, 2002.
His father, DaJuan Wagner, was a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers. "Lose Yourself" by Eminem was the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100. Tom Brady was only 10 months removed from his first Super Bowl title.
Over 20 years later, Wagner, Jr. ventured across the Delaware River to participate in arguably the highest profile interscholastic boys basketball game to reside in the City of Brotherly Love since James' arrival.
The No. 2 ranked player in the 2023 ESPN 100 and teammate Aaron Bradshaw, the No. 4 ranked senior in the nation, led Camden against nationally-ranked Imhotep Charter at Saint Joseph's University on Saturday afternoon.
The two programs rank among the best public high school teams in the country. The Panthers of north Philadelphia were headlined by Justin Edwards, the top-ranked player in the 2023 ESPN national player rankings.
Wagner left his mark as he tallied 18 of his game-high 22 points in the second half of the Panthers' 60-57 triumph at Hagan Arena.
The Kentucky commit is never overwhelmed by the moment.
He competed against Detroit Pistons forward Jalen Duren as a freshman when Duren was a sophomore at Roman Catholic (Pa.) in the Play-by-Play Classic. Wagner scored a team-high 21 points in a head-to-head battle against Bronny James and Sierra Canyon (Ca.) as Camden earned a 66-62 win in a Geico ESPN High School Basketball event at the PPL Center in Allentown last season. The battle-tested Panthers also defeated Dylan Harper and nationally-ranked Don Bosco Prep in the Allen Iverson Roundball Classic three weeks ago.
Those are only a few instances.
The intensity of Saturday's contest and environment was no different.
"We kind of used to it," Wagner said. "It's a lot of seniors on this team. It's a senior-led team so we kind of knew what to expect. We know what to do coming into games like this. We were definitely prepared, but we was also excited."
Camden coach Maalik Wayns grew up across the street from Imhotep Charter in north Philadelphia. The former Villanova and Philadelphia 76ers guard has experienced his fair share of special victories, and Saturday's was another one inserted into the collection.
"I grew up across the street from Imhotep," Wayns said. "I know a lot of those guys personally. I know what the school means to the city. It was great to come in here and get this win."
Dasear Haskins sparked the Panthers with four 3-pointers as part of a 14-point effort. The senior shot 80 percent (4-for-5) from beyond-the-arc. Haskins was a game-time decision after visiting an ankle specialist earlier in the week, but showed no signs of pain as he dialed up clutch shots from the corners.
Saint Louis commit Cian Medley provided 13 points and seven assists for Camden. Bradshaw finished with eight points and seven rebounds.
Medley showed signs of discomfort as he hobbled following a made three-point field goal on an assist from Wagner. The excruciating pain didn't stop the Saint Louis commit from dictating the pace and providing valuable leadership in the closing moments of the heavyweight battle.
"We played a full 32 minutes," Wayns said. "Playing together, playing hard. You seen some guys playing through injuries, guys out there limping being tough. I think we fed off that type of energy."
The Panthers' physical defense contained Edwards to only seven points over the final two quarters. The Kentucky commit finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, and delivered a monstrous slam dunk to keep Imhotep within a point with 18 seconds left in regulation.
Four-star 2024 guard Ahmad Nowell led the Panthers of North Philly with 20 points and Florida Gulf Coast signee Rahmir Barno added 17.
Imhotep never trailed by more than seven points in the back-and-forth affair, but struggled to hit shots from the perimeter in situations when the defense collapsed and provided the Panthers with open looks from the outside.
"We're not usually '0-for' like that with our kick out game," Imhotep Charter coach Andre Noble said. "We just didn't make shots. We didn't do a great job of executing to the level we'd like to on defense, but I thought our guys competed really hard. I felt like the others made plays and we did not make enough."
Camden's brotherhood helped complete the job.
After all, Wagner and Co. refuse to shy away from a challenge.
"They're just great," Wayns said. "Anybody can coach these guys, you can't just get in they way. You let them be who they are. I try to let them know. What they say about being brothers, that's not cliché. These kids love each other.
"In games like this I just try to challenge them and they accept every type of challenge. They can be coached and it makes it easier for me to have guys like this up here helping me lead this great city of Camden's storied tradition of basketball."