A disappearing act. DaJuan Wagner’s NBA career was a vanishing act, and it had very little to do with what he was capable of producing on the court.
A fabled debate in NBA discussion is the infamous “who would’ve been better had it not been for injury?” There’s the normal cast of characters – Penny Hardaway, Bill Walton, Grant Hill, Brandon Roy. The list could extend for days, really. A name never mentioned, however, is DaJuan Wagner. Reasons exist, albeit partially, behind his omission. First, unlike the other names, Juanny Wags (as Ed calls him) never produced the body of work in the league long enough to earn the credibility of a superstar/all-star. He was drafted in 2002 and was out of the league for good by 2006. Secondly, the Cavs avoided a debilitating blow due to DaJuan never panning out because of who the franchise handed the reigns over to the following year (more on that later).
Hoops heads are well aware why Wagner’s career was cut short. His health failed him. Stomachaches begun shortly before his one-and-done season at Memphis. Three years later, the man who averaged 42 points a game his senior year at Camden High School in New Jersey had his colon removed during colitis surgery, not re-signed by Cleveland and staring the sobering realization a God-given talent had been put on ice, possibly forever. And before that, there was the bladder infection, torn cartilage in his knees and inflamed liver and pancreas.
Sure, training to get back in playing shape happened. In a summer league game in 2006, Juanny Wags poured in 57 points and had Dick Jeradi of the Daily News dub him the most skilled player on the 76ers not named Allen Iverson. As did professional tryouts. As did playing overseas. But the NBA never materialized. DaJuan Wagner disappeared. Or maybe yet, he just didn’t feel like being bothered. Aside from a Sports Illustrated article here and there, the only true piece of information on him was an in-depth feature entitled “Finding DaJuan” by Philly.com’s Jason Nark.
Despite the difficult times and cruel reality that talent has never and will never be a permanent gift, two reasons remain why DaJuan Wagner was and still is such a polarizing name in the world of basketball.
A Living New Jersey Icon
New Jerseyers. New Jerseyians. Whatever the correct term is, residents of New Jersey are proud people. They’re in New York’s shadow, and New York doesn’t let them, or anyone for that matter, forget. Nevertheless, the history of New Jersey basketball is as intriguing as it is deep. Scratching the surface, the story of DaJuan Wagner will either a) send chills down a Jersey resident’s spine b) make his/her eyes light up with joy c) suddenly become sad when reflecting on how the story played out or d) all of the above. The answer is more than likely “d” because it’s impossible to tell one part of Juanny Wags’ story without telling the other 100,000 parts.
He’s still a legend in New Jersey, and a walking icon in the streets of Camden. His 100-point game his senior year is the stuff of legend and, by all accounts, more impressive than Wilt’s 100 if the right Camden native is asked. He could’ve scored more, too, had he not volunteered to come out of the game with four minutes remaining.
The son of Milt “Ice” Wagner, who won a national title with Louisville in 1986 and a NBA title with the Lakers two years later, basketball was a birthright. By 2000, dinner with the likes of Super Bowl participants Ray Lewis and Jessie Armstead when he was still in high school was a normal occurrence. And being friends with Allen Iverson was part of the celebrity territory. On the one occasion DaJuan did brush with the wrong side of the law for his involvement with two friends as they jumped a fourth student, a brigade of lawyers were already at the police station waiting to represent him. He was a god amongst men, who held more respect than dope boys in the city, as a teenager. It made sense. Camden isn’t exactly the ideal location to raise a family. Known as one of the toughest and most violent cities in the country, tragedy is common and success is foreign.
Before the hoopla of a kid who would later become his teammate, Wagner was considered the finest high school basketball player on the planet headlined by an unconscious ability to put the rock in the basket. Where Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation album gave East Orange, New Jersey, a facelift musically two years earlier, Juan was Camden’s ticket to basketball immortality. “The Chosen One,” for lack of a better term. More than a decade since he last played in high school and seven years from his last NBA game, Juanny Wags remains a prized possession in Jersey basketball history, as he should. He had no control of body failing. It just sucks that it did.