Top recruit D.J. Wagner takes pride in playing for Team USA

Representing Camden has been a source of great pride for DJ Wagner, who has become the country’s top men’s basketball player in the class of 2023. His maturation in South Jersey has put him on the path to representing his country, now two games away from placing a gold medal around his neck.

“It gives me a lot of pride to go out there, to walk on that floor knowing I have those three letters on my chest, to play for my country,” Wagner said. “But also, we’re all here just to play and have fun doing something that we love to do.”

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In late June, Wagner was selected to play for Team USA at the FIBA ​​U17 World Cup, a biannual event in Malaga, Spain.

Team USA came out on top in group play, which began on July 2. Facing Lebanon, Slovenia and Mali, the Americans won by an average of 52 points. They decimated Egypt in the round of 16 and eliminated Serbia, 106-80, in Friday’s quarter-final match.

On Saturday, they will face Lithuania in the semi-finals. The winner advances to the championship on Sunday against the winner of France and Spain.

A five-day training camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado starting June 18 helped Team USA determine a 12-man roster from 18 finalists. Together they represent nine states, with repeats from New York and Florida.

Wagner mentioned Ronald Holland, a 6-foot-8 forward from Dallas, and 6-foot-1 point guard Jeremy Fears Jr. from Chicago as guys he’s crossed paths with on home runs. AAU.

The rest of the U17 national team includes David Castillo (Oklahoma), Dennis Evans III (California), Cooper Flagg (Maine), Johnuel Fland (New York), Ian Jackson (New York), Karter Knox (Florida), Asa Newell (Florida), Koa Peat (Georgia) and Sean Stewart (Florida).

“It is difficult to quantify the people on whom we rely [to form the team]said Sean Ford, Team USA Men’s National Team Manager. “There is a strong network of people who, if they see a good player who they think is high level and elite enough for the national team, let us know. We are really lucky in this regard. »

Wagner previously attended USA Basketball’s minicamp in July 2019 and again in October. But playing for Team USA – wearing number 12, the reverse of his Camden jersey – was his first taste of international competition.

He said it didn’t take long to recognize the difference between the competition he faces in the United States and the way the game is played overseas.

“The way they play is definitely different,” said Wagner, who is averaging 9 points, 3 rebounds and 3.2 assists in about 19 minutes per game. “It’s much more physical and it’s much slower than in the United States. But it’s definitely a great experience, just getting to play with all the different guys.

Ever since Ford saw Wagner up close, whether at Team USA camps or in FIBA ​​competition, the 17-year-old has shown great composure. He’s able to play at his own pace, Ford said, rather than letting the game speed him up.

“We’re very respectful and very understanding of placing too high expectations on a player at such a young age,” Ford said. “We are very hesitant to order players to be the next player.

“Right now, he’s a terribly nice boy. He comes from a big family and he’s an elite player right now. We’re going to do everything in our power to help him reach his potential and stay there for as long as he can.

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On a whiteboard in the team locker room, above a scribbled game plan, is a seven-digit countdown clock. That means the number of wins it would take to secure Team USA’s sixth straight U17 gold medal, dating back to 2010 (there was no tournament in 2020).

Victory on Friday meant they could strike out number 3. A win on Saturday strikes out 2. Winning again on Sunday would mean striking out 1, which has few dashes around it, marking it as the gold medal game.

“We know winning gold medals won’t last forever,” Ford said. “We try to be the best team possible, not just better than our opponents. We know everyone is improving, so we have to find ways to improve. Taking care of our business is probably the most important thing , and I hope victory is the result.

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