1-ranked rookie Wagner picks Kentucky

1-ranked rookie Wagner picks Kentucky

DJ Wagner, the No. 1-ranked high schooler, announced his commitment to Kentucky men’s basketball on Monday, choosing the Wildcats over Louisville.

Wagner’s commitment gives John Calipari and Kentucky the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. If the Wildcats finish the cycle at the top — and Wagner’s promise likely seals that — it will be the seventh time since Calipari took over in Lexington that Kentucky has the top-ranked recruiting class. Wagner is also the fourth No. 1 rookie to sign with the Wildcats under Calipari, following Shaedon Sharpe, Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis.

“It was an extremely difficult decision that I went back and forth with for a long time. That’s why it took so long,” Wagner told ESPN. “I’m really comfortable with my decision. Coach John Calipari has always been upfront and honest with me. He said he would be with me until the wheels fell off the car anyway. And that meant so much to me. When I watched him coaching, I could feel the intensity, how he disciplines his team and how he breaks it down.”

“The atmosphere in Kentucky is amazing,” he added. “I’ve been there several times and it’s what I’m most comfortable with.”

Wagner was the subject of an intense recruiting battle between state rivals Kentucky and Louisville, with strong family ties to both programs. Calipari coached Wagner’s father, Dajuan, in Memphis, and Louisville freshman coach Kenny Payne played with Wagner’s grandfather, Milt, on Louisville’s 1986 national championship team.

In May, Payne hired Milt Wagner as director of the player development and alumni relations program — a move similar to when Calipari hired Milt in Memphis in 2000. Wagner’s half-brother, Kareem Watkins, is an extra in Kentucky.

“My older brother Kareem is part of the team,” he said. “It made a huge difference. I admire him, we are very close.

“My grandfather was always my grandfather throughout the process. He never tried to recruit me. He always said what was best for me. He was a mentor in my life and he helped me become the player and person that I am. He will always be family first. Nothing but love for him.

A 6-foot-3 guard from Camden High School, New Jersey, Wagner has been considered the top prospect for the Class of 2023 since the start of his high school career. He averaged 18.8 points and 4.9 assists on the Nike EYBL Tour with the NJ Scholars base program last spring and summer, including nine 20-point efforts in 18 games. As a high school junior last season, Wagner averaged 19.8 points and led Camden to a New Jersey State Championship.

Wagner also helped lead USA Basketball to a gold medal at the FIBA ​​U17 World Championships 2022, starting all seven games and averaging 9.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists.

He brings a real competitive spirit to the game; winning is paramount to Wagner. He went to USA Basketball with the mentality of winning a gold medal. He is at his best on the open court, playing in transition. He can bounce defensively and then push the ball down the floor as well as anyone in the class. He puts a lot of pressure on the defense with his speed to score and his vision to make the assist. He’s a playmaker in the mold of Cleveland Cavaliers star Darius Garland.

When play slows down in the half court, Wagner’s improvement from the perimeter has been an asset. He’s learning to orchestrate in pick-and-rolls and he’s always been effective as a downhill penetrator, getting into the paint and finishing with high-level body control. He is decisive once he enters the paint, knowing when to shoot, stop and use his floater or kick an open teammate for a shot. Defensively, he is effective in defending on the ball and also has good ball anticipation.

Wagner joins a Kentucky class that now includes four of the top eight prospects in the 2023 class, with Justin Edwards (No. 2), Aaron Bradshaw (No. 5) and Robert Dillingham (No. 8) already in the fold. The Wildcats also signed 26th-ranked prospect Reed Sheppard.

It’s only the third time in the past 10 years that a school has landed four top-10 prospects in the same class: Kentucky in 2013, which had five of the top nine, and Duke in 2017.

“I come out there to win,” Wagner said. “Winning comes first with me and I want to help Kentucky win as much as I can.”

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