No. 1-ranked recruit D.J. Wagner picks Kentucky over Louisville

D.J. Wagner, the No. 1-ranked high school senior, announced his commitment to Kentucky men’s basketball Monday, choosing the Wildcats over Louisville.

Wagner’s commitment gives John Calipari and Kentucky the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. If the Wildcats finish the cycle at the top — and Wagner’s pledge 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 recruit to commit to the Wildcats under Calipari, following Shaedon Sharpe, Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis.

“This 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 real comfortable with my decision. Coach John Calipari was always straightforward and honest with me. He said he would be with me until the wheels fall off the car either way. And that meant so much to me. When I watched him coach I could feel the intensity, how he disciplines his team and how he breaks it down.”

“The atmosphere at Kentucky is unbelievable,” 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 in-state rivals Kentucky and Louisville, with strong familial ties to both programs. Calipari coached Wagner’s father, Dajuan, at Memphis, and first-year Louisville coach Kenny Payne played with Wagner’s grandfather, Milt, on Louisville’s 1986 national championship team.

In May, Payne hired Milt Wagner as the program’s director of player development and alumni relationship — a similar move to when Calipari hired Milt at Memphis in 2000. Wagner’s stepbrother, Kareem Watkins, is a walk-on at Kentucky.

“My older brother Kareem is on the team,” he said. “That made a huge difference. I look up to him; we are very close.

“My grandfather was always my grandfather throughout the process. He never tried to recruit me. He always said what’s best for me. He’s been a mentor in my life and he’s helped develop me into 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 best prospect in the 2023 class since early in his high school career. He averaged 18.8 points and 4.9 assists on the Nike EYBL circuit with the NJ Scholars grassroots 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 2022 FIBA U17 World Championships, starting all seven games and averaging 9.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists.

He brings a true competitive spirit to the game; winning is paramount to Wagner. He went to USA Basketball with the mentality of winning a gold medal. He’s at his best in the open court, playing in transition. He can rebound defensively and then push the ball up 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 scoring point guard in the mold of Cleveland Cavaliers star Darius Garland.

When the game slows down in the halfcourt, Wagner’s improvement from the perimeter has been an asset. He’s learning how 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’s decisive once he gets into the paint, knowing when to pull-up, jump-stop and use his floater or kick out to an open teammate for a shot. Defensively, he’s effective when guarding on the ball and also has good anticipation off the ball.

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 No. 26-ranked prospect Reed Sheppard.

This marks only the third time in the last 10 years where one 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’m coming there to win,” Wagner said. “Winning comes first with me and I want to help Kentucky win as much as possible.”

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