The “Best” Guard in the Region: DJ Wagner is Sitting in the Big Chair

The reign of Camden High’s DJ Wagner has commenced, but there are several really talented kids vying for the throne.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

You never know if a player is gonna jump up and stake a viable claim to the top spot. We’ve seen it several times in recent years, guys come outta nowhere and attempt to stage a coup d’etat. For example, Collin Gillespie (Archbishop Wood) leapt from the bushes waged a relentless and highly successful campaign in 2017. Last season, Hysier Miller (Neumann-Goretti) stalked Rahsool Diggins (Archbishop Wood) until his quest was cut short by overzealous Catholic League coaches acting like Detective Columbo. In the end, one of the most anticipated playoff matchups in recent memory never came to fruition… A FUCKIN SHAME! Nonetheless, from a fan’s perspective, the anticipation, discussions, disagreements and arguments are essential components of each high school season.

DJ Wagner

God willing, we will be able to watch it all play out on the hardwood this year.

Of course, it’s a debate that is never quite settled… Every year, as August comes into view, the parameters start to come into focus. Contenders are identified and “street” publicists, lawyers and agents start to build their cases.

With intense passion positions are staked and fiercely argued by loyal partisans:

“Lynn Greer is, by far, the best guard in the area.”

“You buggin… Lil’ Sool is that dude.”

“Wooga… Wooga… and then Wooga, those are my top 3.”

“Fabb is the best… Do you watch the games?”

For hoop heads hailing from Southern, Midwestern and Western parts of the country, the question is typically framed as follows: Who’s the best “Philly guard”? They lump Camden, Chester, Trenton, Coatesville, Norristown and even Wilmington into one big “Philly” regional basketball region.

To me, the expansion of the concept makes a great deal of sense.

It’s not as simple as it was when Andre McCarter (Overbrook) and Mo Howard (SJ Prep) were wreaking havoc in the early 1970s.

Andre McCarter

Things are very different these days…

“Philly guards” aren’t necessarily from Philly any more. For present purposes, the category is conceptualized much more loosely than in the past. “Philly” is conceptualized in more of a cultural than geographic sense. Indeed, since Black Cager Sports was founded in 2013, we have steadfastly held that zip codes are almost irrelevant these days. Kids come from near and far to play in the Philadelphia’s Public League, Catholic League, Inter-Ac League, Friends League, South Jersey and Delaware.

Moreover, shoe company sponsored basketball clubs like Philly Pride, Team Final, K-Low Elite, WER1 and the NJ Scholars have further blurred the lines as they have drown the most talented players from far and far.

That’s not to say there isn’t disagreement on this issue… There is…

Chester is always gonna feel that it is separate and distinct. Same with hoops hotbeds like Camden, Reading, Trenton and Coatesville.

I get it… I really do… But when discussing scholastic and grassroots basketball, I just prefer to be inclusive… Especially, when performing comparisons and ranking of the elite players.

Larger sample sizes result in smaller margin of error. After all, the goal as I understand it, is to actually unearth and recognize the finest players.

I was introduced to basketball in the small proud community of Darby Township, population around 3,000. My high school teammate, Geoff Arnold, found himself in this discussion in the early 1980s. Bruiser Flint (Episcopal), Howie Evans (West Philadelphia), Mike Anderson (Engineering & Science), Nate Blackwell (Southern), Troy Daniels (Lamberton) and Pooh Richardson (Ben Franklin) were some of the elite guards in the region during that era. Geoff, from Darby Township, was right there with them.

Thus, it made never made sense to me to exclude great players like Penn Wood’s Rap Curry, Chester’s Jameer Nelson and Norristown’s Marqus Green when discussing the area’s finest guards during their respective careers. They were some bad muthafuckas! They had to be considered in any discussion of the very best guards.

Recent years have seen some really memorable tussles for the Big Chair.

Rysheed Jordan

Neumann-Goretti’s Tony Chennault, Strawberry Mansion’s DJ Newbill and Bartram’s Tyrone Garland vied for the throne. They were followed by Maurice Watson, Jr. (Boy’s Latin) and Steve Vasturia (SJ Prep). Imhotep’s Brandon Austin and Vaux legend, Rysheed Jordan waged some unforgettable battles. Of course, Jaquan Newton, for many observers, ruled his era. Tony Carr (Roman) and Samir Doughty (MCS) ruled for a year or so. Then Fatts Russell (Imhotep) and Booty Butler (Del-Val/O’Hara) were at the head of the pack. The debates surrounding Neumann-Goretti’s Quade Green and Archbishop Wood’s Collin Gillespie were especially intense. Meanwhile, the legend of Lonnie Walker (Reading) came to be in Berks County. Isaiah Wong (Bonner-Prendie) came in from Jersey and held off Lynn Greer (Roman) and the rest of the challengers for a couple years.

Collin Gillespie

AJ Hoggard (Carroll) appeared to be the heir apparent and then he took his ball to Huntington Prep in West Virginia after his sophomore season. Down in Delaware, Bones Hyland (St. George’s Tech) was dropping 50s left and right. His feats were not adequately appreciated at the time. Gillespie’s successor, Rahsool Diggins (Wood) came forth, held off a worthy challenge from Neumann-Goretti’s Hakim Byrd and sat firmly in the big chair.

This past season, Wooga Poplar (MCS) and Hysier Miller (Neumann-Goretti) really challenged Diggins for the big chair. It must be noted that yet another Berks County legend, Stevie Mitchell (Wilson West Lawn) emerged and forced himself squarely into the conversation. Unfortunately, one can only imagine how good it would have been to settle things on the basketball court.

Hysier Miller

In what will go down as stain on the history of scholastic basketball in Philadelphia, Miller’s majestic season was cut short after it was determined that one of his teammates played 1 or 2 games over the limit in California before returning to the Catholic League. As a result, the fans were denied an opportunity to see Diggins and Miller compete for the Catholic League Championship.

So, what now… Is Wagner firmly entrenched in the big chair?

Of course, there is no definitive answer… It’s all speculation… But, damn it’s fun!

Man your battle stations!

Last year, when I publicly argued that Miller, Diggins, Mitchell and Poplar were the premier scholastic guards, it caused an unexpected and severe backlash in some quarters. The supporters of Camden basketball and the prodigy felt that an act of blasphemy had been committed. This whole “comparison” exercise made no sense. This was a settled matter. God created Eve from Adam’s rib and DJ Wagner, at the tender age of 15, was the “best” guard in the region. If you didn’t agree you were either a “hater” or crazy.

Rahsool Diggins

By then, Wagner had emerged as the consensus number one player in his class. A gifted and complete basketball player, he was definitely worthy of inclusion and full consideration in any discussion of the best guards. Shit… I have argued that he was worthy of inclusion in the discussion at 14.

However, the question remained: Was Wagner at 15 already a better guard than Mitchell (Marquette), Diggins (UConn), Miller (Temple) and Poplar (Miami) at 18? After careful consideration, I concluded that he had not yet surpassed these high major prospects.

Not at 15… He was very close… He was knocking on the door… He nipping on their heels… But, he had not yet lapped them.

I soon realized that with that pronouncement, unbeknownst to me, I had entered into the realm of religion. I was questioning the Camden basketball Gods. It was as if I challenged 9 of the 10 Commandments. I was excommunicated. It became very clear that Black Cager Sports was no longer welcomed in bible study (practice/workouts) and church services (games). I discovered there was zero room for any discussion that did not begin from a point where young Mr. Wagner was already ensconced as the premier guard in this region.

I began to realize that Black Cager Sports mattered a LOT more than I ever thought it did.

So…. What about this year? Is it a settled matter? Are there others worthy of consideration?

In my opinion, Wagner has ascended and now sits in the big chair and, yes, there are others worthy of consideration. We have some things to talk about.

Chance Westry

Harrisburg’s Chance Westry (Hillcrest Prep) is an elite, savvy and mature 6’6” point guard with countless high major offers. He has elite vision, a tight handle and the ability to score in bunches. Is the 18 year old Westry as good as or better than Wagner right now? To me, that’s a fair question. It’s timely as we are in the midst of the EYBL season with Peach Jam coming up this week.

For some, by daring to pose such a question, I am confirming what they already suspect, I am a heathen. For the true believers, I am an unconverted member who is failing to acknowledge the God of the Bible.

Zion Cruz

Is Wagner better than Trenton’s Zion Cruz right now? To me that’s another fair question. Cruz is a very accomplished, athletic and highly coveted guard.

Is Wagner better Justice Williams right now? Williams has returned to the region after a year at Montverde Academy. He has committed to play for Will Wade at LSU in the SEC.

Is Wagner better than Derek Simpson right now? Simpson is another high major guard prospect in the region. Simpson has scholarship offers from A10, Big 10 and ACC programs. He is a very smooth and cerebral player with a very high upside.

Derek Simpson

Let me be clear… I am a fan of DJ Wagner.

Without a doubt, he is the most complete guard around these parts. He plays all aspects of the game very well. He is an excellent defender, rarely commits turnovers and makes big shot after big shot. Moreover, he respects the game and he respects his opponents. On the few occasions, I have interacted with him, I have come away amazed at how well he handles all the shit that comes with holding down the number 1 slot in his respective class.

Wagner is a great player, and more importantly, he is a highly intelligent, mature and thoughtful young man. He represents his parents, grandparents and the City of Camden extremely well at all times.

Indeed, he is probably finest guard in the area right now. I could easily see one making a case for putting Wagner in the big chair today.

I fully understand those argue he is the guy right now… I do…

What I don’t understand why they feel it’s blasphemous to put forth guys like Westry, Cruz, Williams or Simpson as contenders for the throne today. There has to be space for arguments and counterarguments. There has to be room for dissension.

Otherwise, we are in church.

If we all agreed, it wouldn’t be any fun.

I’m just trying to watch high school basketball. Check ball… The high school season is fast approaching and this debate will be settled on the hardwood. Or, maybe it won’t…

Next year, fans of Zxavier Brown (Roman), Deuce Jones (Ryan) and Ahmad Nowell (Houston) will be pushing for their guy and Wagner supporters will push back with vengance… As they should.

SEC Bound: Camden High’s Taquan Woodley Leaves for the University of South Carolina

So… I was in attendance at one of Charles Monroe’s legendary All-City Classic Events a few years back. This was an 8th grade game and one of the kids jumped out at me.

He was relentless…

He seemed to grab every rebound and block half of the opponents shots. What I really liked was the honesty and purity of his effort. He did not care at all how he looked… He didn’t try to look pretty or smooth… He was very raw offensively, but he was, by far, the most impactful player on the court…

He played with reckless abandon and a singular focus, just get shit done and win the game.

After the game, I approached the young fella and asked, “What’s your name?”

Taquan Woodley

“Where are you from?”


“My office is in Camden, I’m in Camden everyday. I’m gonna follow your high school career… You are a damn good basketball player.”


From that moment on, I’ve been extremely impressed with Woodley’s intellect and his development on and off the basketball court. But, it is worth noting it hasn’t been a smooth ride. There have been plenty of ups and downs along the way.

A couple months later, before the High School season starts, I’m in the fabled Neumann-Goretti gym talking to Saints Assistant Coach Pat “Socks” Sorrentino and Head Coach Carl Arrigale. I see Woodley running around and I say “you guys got the best freshman in the city.” Carl just smiles and lets me know that he is fully aware of the talent that Woodley possesses.

I made my way to several Neumann-Goretti games that year. Woodley doesn’t start for a typically loaded Neumann-Goretti club. But he is often the first player off the bench. Marcus Littles was the starting big for the Saints that year. Coming in at 6’9” and about 270 lbs, Littles was massive physical presence in the low post for Neumann-Goretti.

But when Arrigale inserted Woodley in the game… Shit changed! Every single time… Woodley is an explosive leaper with exceptional timing. He took great delight in punching the shots of opposing players all the way to the concession stand or trying to push them through the backboard. His blocks were the most humiliating type. Most of the time, kids chose not to test him for the rest of the game.

The only thing that seemed to give him as much pleasure as blocking shots was dunking extremely hard on, through and over opponents.

Woodley was, clearly, the best freshman in the Philadelphia Catholic League in my opinion. I assumed the Saints would have him patrolling the paint for three more seasons.

Then one of my Camden buddies pulled me to the side. Jerome Brewer let me know that he was bringing his son, Jerome Brewer, Jr. back to Camden for his sophomore season after spending his freshman year at West Catholic Prep. Brewer didn’t stop there, he was talking REAL heavy… He told me that he was working hard on some things to help bring Camden back to national prominence and told me to stand by. Like I said… Brew was talking heavy!

Next thing I know, Lance Ware transfers into Camden from Life Center Academy and Taquan Woodley leaves Neumann-Goretti to come home and play for the High.

Oh shit… Camden is Back! Ok… Brew, I see what you were saying…

The first year was a transition year… Led by then Head Coach and current Camden Mayor, Vic Carstarphen, Camden was a good team, but not a great team. The passion had returned… The community was once again in full support of the program… But they just couldn’t get over the hump.

After the season, Carstarphen decided to pursue a much larger calling and began his political career. This opened the door for Rick Brunson.

Brunson is a stern task master and he immediately imposed a great deal of structure and discipline within the Camden High program. An outstanding high school coach and a John Chaney disciple, Brunson’s arrival also coincided with that of DJ Wagner. Young Wagner is 3rd generation basketball royalty in Camden. His father, DeJuan, and his grandfather, Milt, were High School All-Americans at Camden. Both played High Major college basketball at Memphis and Louisville, respectively. Both also played in the National Basketball Association.

Under the direction of Brunson, with Woodley as the anchor of the defense, Camden High went 42-1 over the past 2 seasons. Ware would emerge as a top 50 player and earn a scholarship to play in the SEC for John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats. DJ Wagner is currently the consensus number 1 player in the class of 2023.

Those guys were the stars…

Woodley was the glue… He was the heart and soul of the program… His longtime AAU Coach, Harold Mackey Boswell understood what Woodley brought to the table… The Director of the WER1 basketball club, Terrell Myers understood Woodley’s value as a basketball player… Mackey and Myers were convinced early on that Woodley was a high major prospect.

However, casual basketball fans overly emphasizing scoring stats and mixtape highlights had no clue.

He never averaged more than 9 points per game. In an era where people think you have to shoot your way to a Division 1 scholarship, how did Woodley end up in the SEC with such low scoring output?

Then South Carolina Assistant Coach, Perry Clark came to Camden to evaluate Lance Ware in December 2018. I explained to Clark that Woodley, then a sophomore, was the toughest, nastiest big in the region and asked him to take a hard look at him as well. While observing practice, Clark took note of Woodley and also offered him a scholarship on the spot… South Carolina was the first to offer.

As he entered his junior season, Black Cager Sports had Woodley listed as one of the top 2 PF/C prospects in the Greater Philadelphia region. The clear cut number 1 big was Jalen Duren, then a sophomore at Roman Catholic High School and currently the number 1 HS player in the nation according to Rivals and 247Sports.

Nonetheless, several of the top local programs were a little bit circumspect about recruiting Woodley. The rumors were rampant… He was a “head case” and he had “questionable grades.” Each and every time those issues were raised, I would ask the coaches to talk to the kid themselves… Get to know him… Some were put off by the rumors and just wouldn’t consider him as a potential recruit. It was their loss.

I knew one coach that would take the time to evaluate the young man for himself, then Penn State Head Coach Pat Chambers. Coach Chambers came to see Woodley go against Duren in the High School game of the year. We sat along the baseline and I provided narration and play by play each and every trip down the floor.

“Pat… Duren’s not gonna get to the rim against Quan…”
“Coach… Quan ain’t goin’ for that shit coach…”
“Pat… He don’t need no help down low…”

As usual, Woodley did an outstanding job defending the low post, rebounding and just executing the game plan for Coach Brunson. Before the final buzzer sounded, Chambers let me know what he thought…

“Will he be eligible?”

“Yes coach… I’ll stay on his ass to make sure he’ll be eligible.”

“Well… I’m gonna offer him.”

“Good shit coach! Thanks!”

A few weeks later, I take Woodley up to Penn State for an unofficial visit. Chambers and his Assistant Keith Urgo know how to do visits… I’m watching closely observing the body language and the interaction with the staff and the players… Woodley really liked Penn State. We leave at halftime of the football game to head back to Camden.

We weren’t in the car 3 minute before Woodley says, “Del, I wanna come back and do an official visit.”

To me, that was a strong indicator that he was leaning Penn State. We had spent over 8 hours on campus and all he could think about was coming back for a 3 day official visit.

Shortly thereafter, Woodley committed to Penn State and Coach Chambers. During this period, Woodley became especially close with Assistant Coach Urgo. Coach Urgo was constantly calling/texting to make sure Woodley was on the right track academically. Although, there was clear path toward meeting freshman eligibility requirements, it was not a given. If Woodley wanted to play Division 1 basketball, he would have to get much better grades than he had gotten up to that point.

It was a good marriage. The coaches were excited and supportive of Woodley and he truly looked forward to playing in the Big 10 for the Nittany Lions. It was all good.

Then it wasn’t…

Chambers was forced to resign in the aftermath of allegations made by a former player. All of a sudden everything that was settled was completely unsettled.

After rescinding his commitment to Penn State, Woodley asked me one day “Do you think I’ll get some offers.” Part of me wondered why this immensely talented young man, a kid that had been committed to a Big 10 program, would have such concerns. But then I recalled the issues raised and strong reservations several local coaches had regarding Woodley’s character.

Would he have a problem finding another suitor?

We needed to find a coach that could appreciate the nuance and subtlety of Woodley’s game. I needed a program that wasn’t focused solely on kids with big names and big reputations. We needed a school that would give Woodley a fair chance and a real opportunity.

One name immediately came to mind… Frank Martin, Head Coach at the University of South Carolina.

On Monday, October 26, 2020 at 10:16 PM, I texted Frank Martin and his Associate Head Coach, Chuck Martin and let them know that Woodley had just de-committed from Penn State.

Less than a month later on Wednesday, November 18, 2020, Woodley signed a Letter of Intent to attend the University of South Carolina.

The outbursts, the technical fouls, the skirmishes, the school suspensions… All those episodes from when he was 14 and 15 years old had scared off all of the local programs, except one. LaSalle University’s Ashley Howard recruited Woodley hard. He took the time to get to know the young man and he made an aggressive and persuasive pitch. Woodley really liked Coach Howard and La Salle, but in the end he wanted to get away from Camden, live in another part of the country and compete at the high major level.

After Camden sailed through an abbreviated COVID-19 season with an undefeated and unchallenged record of 15-0, Woodley’s focus turned to academics. He’s worked extremely hard, he had to overcome some poor performances in the 9th and 10th grades. Because, he was limited to distance learning, Woodley had to exercise a tremendous amount of self discipline. He had to log in everyday. He had to independently complete his assignments. It was all on him.

The Camden Ol’ heads, Mayor Carstarphen, Arthur Barclay and Denny Brown were always there encouraging and cheering him on. His mentor and surrogate parent, Tracey Hall, simultaneously stayed on his ass and loved him up. Ms. Hall did yeoman’s work ensuring that this day would come.

Eventually, with the love and support of his Camden village, Taquan Woodley cleared all the hurdles.

This morning, Woodley said good bye to his girlfriend Ameerah Lindsey and packed his belongings into an SUV. His proud adoptive parents, Willie and Mae Woodley were well-rested and eager to drop their son off to Frank Martin and the South Carolina Gamecocks. His new “Auntie”, Women’s Coach Dawn Staley will be busy the next month or so coaching the USA’s Olympic Womens basketball team. But, when she returns to campus she’ll have a new “supporter” from Camden at all of her games.

The energetic young boy they adopted when he was three years old will be on TV this winter going against Kentucky, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi, Vanderbilt and Auburn.

The kid that so many declared “wouldn’t make it” is an SEC scholarship basketball player.

Taquan Woodley, I’m proud to call you my friend and a Black Cager Youngin… Let’s Go Gamecocks!!