In the summer of 2000, at the grizzled age of 20, I was paid by a scouting service to submit reports on every member of that year’s Nike All-American Camp in Indianapolis. I was tasked with writing about the prospects and futures of a series of youngsters that were just a few years younger than me, which was weird, but the real focus of my time spent at the contests was to put pen to paper about Dajuan Wagner – the established star of his 2001 high school class.
Wagner, the son of former NBA pro Milt Wagner, had by then already committed to Memphis, and he had no real use for the camp outside of letting us leering scouts, college coaches and assorted hangers-on determine just how he stacked up against his peers. Wagner didn’t play poorly, there were several jaw-dropping moves; but he was aware of station and steadied college commitment – working mostly off the ball as a solid teammate and rarely showcasing the sort of ball-dominating one-on-one moves we expected from someone who was labeled as the perfect hybrid of Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury.
He left the camp early, with his status assured. After a disappointing year in Memphis, he was drafted as a lottery pick by a miserable Cleveland Cavaliers team in 2002. After a lacking NBA career, Wagner left the league in 2006. Just 31 years old, he wants another shot at an NBA career – for himself, and for his growing son. He’ll have his work cut out for him.
"We'll evaluate opportunities when Dajuan is ready," said Wagner's agent, Cherry Hill attorney Leon Rose. "But just watching what Dajuan has done with his gym and working with young people, it's been great to see."
Wagner said his son, who is a fourth grader, is a standout running back for the 85-pound Monroe Braves youth team. He's a budding basketball star, too.
Lately, the younger Wagner has begun to express more interest in learning about his father and grandfather.
"He goes on the Internet and watches YouTube of me and my dad," Wagner said.
Wagner knows all about the pressures of being the son of a famous father. He said he is careful to protect his boy from the weight of high expectations.
But he also says that his son's burgeoning success in sports has been a big part of his motivation to try to make a comeback. He said his son wants to see him play for real, not just on video.
"He wants to see me do it," Wagner said. "People tell him all the time about me, just like they used to tell me about my dad."
Wagner does his strength and conditioning work with Chad Hallett, who is a part-owner of the Cherry Hill facility. "Last year, he couldn't even dunk," Hallett said. "Now he's doing windmills."
"I don't want to get to be 37 and think back and say, 'I wonder if I could have still played,' " Wagner said. "If I feel strong enough, if my body is right, I know I can do it. The basketball won't be a problem. I've done that my whole life."
Wagner is financially secure, even though his NBA career only lasted through one rookie deal, a one-game stint with the Golden State Warriors, and an abbreviated run with a team in Poland.
It was not a good pro career. Wagner was explosive, but he had trouble finishing in the paint, and he remained a well below-par jump shooter. It’s true that the Cavaliers did not have much to pass to even after LeBron James joined the team in 2003, but Wagner never developed as a playmaker.
Worse, his body betrayed him.
Dajuan Wagner is one of the few NBA-level talents to be felled by illness, rather than injury. He did tear cartilage in his right knee during his second season, but a series of stomach ailments and the eventual diagnosis of colitis sat him for most of the 2004-05 campaign and all of the next year. Wagner’s body never took to the medication, and after a series of liver and spleen ailments as a result of his malady, he underwent a radical procedure that essentially replaced his colon with parts of his lower intestine. A nasty fall while driving to the rim while working with his Polish club injured his hip and effectively ended his career.
For now, at least.
This is a 31-year old man that has not played pro basketball in seven years, and that can work for or against him. The ravages of his illness shouldn’t have taken much of a toll on the legs and timing that he showcased in high school (where he averaged 42 points as a senior and once scored 100 in a single game) or at the camp that I saw him at (where one tip-dunk tore the figurative roof off the place). Dajuan Wagner was not a good NBA player, but we have no idea how much his illness (he reported stomach pain even in college) had to do with things.
The strengths of Wagner’s game are not popular amongst NBA scouts right now, and for good reason. He was not able to replicate his abilities at finishing in the paint amongst the NBA trees, he made just 32 percent of his three-pointers despite heaps of attempts. Defenses and NBA personnel have only gotten smarter in the years since his seven-minute stint (four points, one turnover, one assist, 1-1 from long range) with the Golden State Warriors in 2006.
Worse, Wagner might not get over the reputation that dogged him when he entered the league in 2002. A good 12 months before the Cavs drafted LeBron, they just about signed off on a tanking maneuver in selecting the raw combo guard sixth in the draft. The Cavs then traded the league’s leading assist man in Andre Miller for the just-as raw Darius Miles a month later, tanking and tanking hard as LeBron finished up his senior year of high school. John Lucas was that team’s coach for a reason.
In a way, Wagner was doomed to fail – and a long-undiagnosed condition made things all the more tougher.
He’s just 31, though. There’s still time to end this the right way.
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