Saturday, August 13, 2022

DJ Wagner recruitment: Is Kentucky or Louisville the best fit for the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2023?

With top overall prospect GG Jackson reclassifying from the 2023 to 2022 recruiting class, all eyes now turn to DJ Wagner — who was quickly elevated to the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2023 in the 247Sports rankings — and his dramatic Bluegrass State recruiting battle. Will it be Kentucky or Louisville that lands one of basketball’s brightest young stars? 

The answer to that question may soon be unveiled after a topsy-turvy recruitment process that’s seen wild swings in momentum for both programs. And while Wagner has not revealed a timeline for his decision publicly, rumors have for weeks swirled that one could come around Peach Jam — which just concluded — or sometime in the lead-up to the 2022-23 season.

Which means his decision could come at any time.

So which school has the edge? Which school should have the edge? There are a number of things at play from on-court fit to off-court fit, familial connections to, well, more familial connections. Let’s compare how Wagner fits at both Kentucky and Louisville, his two most likely destinations.

Kentucky

On-court fit: John Calipari puts the ball in the hands of its guards and lets them run the show. John Wall. Tyrese Maxey. Ashton Hagans. Tyler Ulis. If you can facilitate as a creator and as a scorer — which Wagner can do — then UK will free you up. At Rupp Arena, Wagner would likely flourish as a do-it-all guard who does his best damage creating his own offense and stuffing the stat sheet as a scorer. 

Off-court fit: Wagner has signed an NIL deal — already! — with Drake’s Nike sub-label NOCTA, potentially paving the way for him to rock the Kentucky superfan’s gear while playing for the Nike school. The Athletic’s Kyle Tucker mentioned that some UK basketball folks may soon be rocking some NOCTA gear soon, too, which would in no way be a coincidence. It could also be just a recruiting ploy, but either way, I’m filing this away in the category of “interesting and possibly noteworthy.”

Connections: John Calipari coached DJ’s father, Dajuan Wagner, at Memphis during the 2001-2002 season. Dajuan Wagner went on to become the No. 6 pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. Milt Wagner, Wagner’s grandfather, served on Calipari’s staff at Memphis from 2000 through 2006 in basketball operations. Milt Wagner also went on to serve as an assistant on the staff at UTEP under Tony Barbee from 2006 through 2010 and followed Barbee to Auburn, where they coached from 2010 through 2014. Barbee later went on to serve on staff at Kentucky under Calipari from 2014 to 2021 before taking the head coaching position at Central Michigan.  

Louisville

On-court fit: Louisville doesn’t yet have an on-court identity under new coach Kenny Payne. It’s impossible to project as we sit here in the dog days of summer as he’s never been a head coach, but everything Payne has said about what the system will look like suggests Wagner and his abilities as a do-it-all guard would be properly featured.

“If you can play free-flowing, unpredictable basketball, and have some principles to it, you’re going to keep the defense off-balance,” Payne said earlier this year. “That’s how I want to play. I want to be fast. I want to be athletic. I want to play with freedom. I want to shoot the three, but I don’t want to live by the three.” 

He added that reading and reacting will be key to success within the system and that defense will be a focal point. 

Off-court fit: The Wagner family themselves don’t have ties to Kentucky — only to its coach. That is not the case with Louisville. Milt Wagner played at Louisville with its current coach. And Louisville legends have been a mainstay around DJ Wagner on the grassroots circuit thanks to those connections. That, seemingly, would make his fit with the program go seamlessly, especially given his familiarity and comfort level with the school that dates back far longer than Kentucky. 

Connections: Shortly after Louisville tabbed Payne as Chris Mack’s successor, Payne tapped into the alumni pipeline and hired Milt Wagner as the program’s director of player development and alumni relations, almost certainly as a way to try and lure DJ Wagner to Louisville. Payne bringing Milt Wagner aboard isn’t their only connection, though; they played together at Louisville in the 1980s and were on the same 1986 NCAA championship team together. In a statement upon his hiring at Louisville, Milt Wagner called Payne his “brother” and said Louisville is his “second home.” Dajuan Wagner, DJ’ Wagner’s father, called Payne in an interview with ESPN his “uncle.”

Prediction: Kentucky

Calipari’s roots run deep in the Wagner family, and what he helped do for Dajuan Wagner (getting him to the NBA) and for Milt Wagner (giving him his start in coaching) can’t be understated. Even with Milt Wagner’s presence at Louisville, the gravitational pull to UK — which offers a bigger platform and a chance to play for a Hall of Famer — might be too much for the Cardinals to overcome. 

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