The NBA's Forgotten "What If" Case Study - Dajuan Wagner

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.

Running Alongside The King

The timeline is clear as day. Wagner averaged 13.4 points in only 47 games his rookie year, half in part due to his body going haywire and half in part due to Cleveland doing everything in their power to lose every game imaginable. LeBron James is brought in as the savior of the franchise, city, state and game as a whole. Over the next two seasons, the two would only share the same jersey for 55 games with Wagner only starting in four.

Here was LeBron, a kid from a single parent household in Akron, Ohio, who loved the company of others. A kid who had no issues whatsoever sharing the ball. And there was DaJuan, the Camden legend whose talent was putting the ball in the basket at blinding rates. From two different cities soundtracked by poverty, helplessness and survival of the fittest, here they were bonded together on a NBA franchise desperately needing the hunger both brought to the table.

Wagner never shot well in the pros (36% for his brief career). Blame that on still being young relying on raw talent. No player, especially one under the age of 20, has ever entered into the league with sniper's marksmanship. It just doesn't happen. So, yes, growing pains were an issue. Then there were the actual pains his body was facing. It's hard to focus on the follow through of a shot or rotate on defense when your colon, small intestine and pancreas are having World War III inside your own body.

The guy was dealt a raw deal at the worst possible time playing with a talent who, in many ways like him, was tapped to lead the new generation of basketball to new heights. Visualizing how effective as a tandem the two could have been is next to impossible, despite them being cool long before either were Cavs (fast forward to around the 4:20 mark). How would Wags have taken the role of co-pilot? How would Wags have adapted to playing off the ball more since LeBron would have been the primary ball handler and facilitator? Could Cleveland have put the right shooters around them since neither were great shooters at time? Were Bron and Juan's playing styles beneficial to the other in the first place? Get where I'm going with this? Too many factors (i.e. Darius Miles and Ricky Davis) and questions that are impossible to answer reside because the sample size of them together simply isn't enough to come to some sort of conclusion.

If nothing else, screaming "LeBron to DaJuan" or "DaJuan to LeBron" alley-oop highlights would've been fun strictly off rhyming purposes. Hell, Jay-Z may have made an extra song or two simply off that alone. What's really amazing in retrospect? The Cavs drafted - in High School Hoops' rankings - the two best shooting guards of the past 10 years in back-to-back drafts. And never saw it truly materialize. Cleveland's string of bad luck will end soon because the law of averages state so. It has too. Right? RIGHT?!

***

In 2013, at 30 years old, DaJuan's vision to return to the NBA may be more of a pipe dream than a reality. Then again, according to this recently uploaded video of the sixth pick in the 2002 NBA Draft playing in a summer league game in Jersey, the talent is still there. Ok, granted, the opposing talent level isn't exactly league-caliber worthy. But consider it a soft reminder of what once was and what could and should have been.

Juanny Wags, y'all. In the flesh.

5 Replies to “The NBA's Forgotten "What If" Case Study - Dajuan Wagner”

  1. Dajuan isn't trying to come back now and he never was back then. Dajuan lost that hunger that john Lucas talked about. He got homesick and wanted to be back in Camden with his homies. And not ONE of those nuthuggers told him to get back into the nba. Now he's running around Camden happy to just say he got there. What a waste! Trust me people. This has NOTHING to do with injuries. Just a kid that couldn't survive the nba life. Rather be a hometown hero for all the troublemakers in Camden. What a shame!

  2. Hi all - I played Div 1 ball outta NJ - graduated in 1999, and had the pleasure to rock with the likes of Jason Williams (Duke then no. 1 pick by bulls till he ruined his knee on a sportbike), Sam Dalembert (76ers), AL Harrington (Pacers), and many more NJ Legends.

    Played Camden as a junior. DaJuan was a Freshman. It was EARLY in the seasonr too, like december. This kid was IMMORTAL. Scored 45 pts against a team w/ 3 division 1 signees and two VERY good guards. We made it to our group finals that year for state championships. we COULD NOT Stop him. What a talent.

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