Monday, June 27, 2022

Louisville uses John Calipari’s playbook by hiring Milt Wagner, grandfather of No. 1 recruit DJ Wagner

John Calipari, after he was fired by the Nets 23 games into his third season as an NBA coach, was officially hired as an assistant on Larry Brown’s Sixers staff in September 1999 — but he knew it was only temporary. By then, the man who had previously turned a miserable UMass program into a national power was focused on returning to college via the best job available following the 1999-2000 season. So, with this in mind, Calipari started spending a lot of time just across the Delaware River in Camden, N.J., where a high school phenom named Dajuan Wagner was establishing himself as the most dynamic guard in the country.

Fast-forward to March 2000, Calipari was hired at Memphis. He then added Dajuan Wagner’s father, Milt Wagner, to his staff and offered a scholarship to, and eventually enrolled, Dajuan Wagner’s best friend, Arthur Barclay. Three months later, surprise surprise, Dajuan Wagner committed to Memphis, where he played one season before being selected by the Cavaliers with the No. 6 pick in the 2002 NBA Draft.

So Calipari and the Wagners go way back.

And it is that strong relationship with the family — in addition to Calipari’s relationships with everybody close to the Wagners, among them Knicks executive William Wesley, whom Dajuan Wagner calls “Uncle Wes” — that has forever made Calipari, now the coach at Kentucky, the perceived leader to eventually land Dajuan Wagner’s son, DJ Wagner, who is the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2023, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.

But now, who knows?

That’s because Louisville announced Tuesday that it has pulled a page from Calipari’s old playbook and hired Milt Wagner, DJ Wagner’s grandfather, in a director of player development and alumni relations role, where he’ll work for his alma mater and beside a friend — first-year Louisville coach Kenny Payne — with whom he’s been close since they were teammates on Denny Crum’s 1986 national championship team.

“It’s an honor for me to return to my alma mater and work alongside my brother Kenny Payne,” Milt Wagner said Tuesday. “Louisville is my second home — and I’ve always wanted to return here to work with this historic program that I contributed my blood, sweat and tears for as a student-athlete.”

Needless to say, the Cardinals are now a major player in the recruitment of DJ Wagner, who will soon become the sport’s first third-generation McDonald’s All-American. Consequently, Calipari is suddenly at risk of losing the nation’s top-ranked recruit for the third time in a five-class span more or less only because a school hired someone with established ties to the nation’s top-ranked recruit.

First, it was James Wiseman — the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2019 who was, by all accounts, headed to Kentucky. But then Memphis hired Wiseman’s high school and grassroots coach, Penny Hardaway, to replace Tubby Smith, which led to Wiseman following Hardaway to Memphis. Next it was Cade Cunningham — the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2020 who was, by all accounts, headed to Kentucky. But then Oklahoma State added Cannen Cunningham, Cade Cunningham’s older brother, to Mike Boynton’s staff, which led to Cade Cunningham following his brother to Oklahoma State.

So will DJ Wagner be the next to pass on UK?

That’s the question I asked 247Sports’ Travis Branham.

“I believe that Louisville has been, and remains, the leader to land DJ Wagner,” Branham answered. “I placed my Crystal Ball [prediction] in mid-April when sources began indicating that a move like we saw today was in the works. This is going to be fascinating to watch how all this unfolds, as Kentucky also has DJ’s half-brother on its roster in Kareem Watkins. But when it’s all said and done, I’m currently leaning with Kenny Payne and the Cardinals landing the No. 1 player in 2023.”

That seems to be the growing belief.

To be clear, only a fool would completely count out Calipari and Kentucky, if only because he’s still John Calipari and it’s still the University of Kentucky. The Wildcats will stay in there, and likely be in there, until a national letter of intent is signed. But there’s no getting around the fact that Louisville’s decision to hire an alum with strong ties to the Wagners, and Payne’s decision to then turn around hire Milt Wagner, has complicated Calipari’s plans. Once considered something close to a done deal for UK, the chase for DJ Wagner is now college basketball’s most interesting high-stakes recruiting battle between two in-state rivals — one where the same move that helped Calipari two decades ago might cost him two decades later.

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