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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.