ESPN 60 prospects Bronny James and D.J. Wagner are set to meet on the hardwood for the first time in their high school basketball careers on Saturday, but the connection between the young players extends beyond the court.
James and Wagner are set to clash in the 2021-22 GEICO ESPN High School Basketball Showcase's final game when the No. 11 Sierra Canyon Trailblazers (Chatsworth, Calif.) face the No. 12 Camden (N.J.) High Panthers at the PPL Center on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPNU).
Long before either rising star held a basketball, their fathers were also elite prospects in high school hoops.
Current Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James was notably the Cleveland Cavaliers' first overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft after being deemed "The Chosen One" while playing for the St. Vincent-St. Mary Fighting Irish (Akron, Ohio).
He quickly became a household name, leading SVSM to three state championships and compiling a lengthy résumé along the way. His early accomplishments include being the first junior to be named Gatorade's national player of the year and scoring 31 points in his national TV debut against then-No. 1 Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) in 2002.
Dajuan Wagner Sr., nicknamed "The Messiah," was selected in the first round by the Cavs in 2002, one year before LeBron. He had a prolific high school career that included being named ESPN's Freshman of the Year and scoring 100 points in a game in his senior year. He set a New Jersey state record with 3,462 career points and averaged 42.5 points per game before playing one year with the Memphis Tigers.
While James is in his 19th NBA season, Wagner Sr.'s professional basketball career ended after four seasons because of various injuries and ulcerative colitis that resulted in frequent hospitalization. He never played a full NBA season. As a result, James and Wagner Sr. appeared together in just 55 games for Cleveland. The Messiah started in only four of them.
Despite their limited playing time together, Wagner Sr. is confident that James' career could have played out a lot differently had they been able to share the court for a substantial period of time.
"LeBron wouldn't have had to leave Cleveland. If I would have stayed healthy, he wouldn't have had to leave." He told Slam Magazine in 2014. "If I was healthy from the beginning," he said, going on to reference a young Cavs team, "we could have done some things."
Former NBA forward Carlos Boozer, who played with Wagner and James in Cleveland during the 2003-04 season, shared a similar sentiment about the team's potential.
"If Dajuan Wagner would have stayed healthy, man, who knows? He could have been a three- or four-time All-Star, easily -- easily, especially because the next year, we got LeBron," Boozer said to Slam. "Who knows what could have happened down the line? He could have been up there in the scoring ranks because that's what he did. He was a scorer."
In a July 2021 post on Instagram, LeBron called fellow former Cavalier Wagner one of the "most talented teammates" he's ever played with.
Despite the long-standing history between the two NBA dads, Saturday's game is the first time their sons will play against each other with their high school squads.
Wagner Jr. is ESPN's top-ranked high school junior and is the latest player in his family's lineage to don Camden High's purple and gold.
"I see D.J.'s jump shot and his build is like mine, so he's like me in those areas, but as far as his dad, D.J. attacks the basket with either hand like his dad used to do," D.J.'s grandfather Milt, who was a member of the 1988 Lakers championship team, said to PhillyVoice.com. "So, D.J. is more a combination of both of us, and he has his own talents as a point guard. D.J. is far better than me at the same age -- and I know his father will say the same thing."
Wagner Jr. plays a pivotal role on a Panthers team that recently saw its 44-game win streak end against No. 7 Montverde Academy (Florida) on Jan. 13.
ESPN's national recruiting director Paul Biancardi also cites D.J.'s ability to read various defensive schemes to generate clever scoring opportunities among the qualities that support his status as the class of 2023's No.1 prospect.
Bronny is the No. 43 junior in the country and already has a star-studded fan club. Naturally, he is often compared to his father. In 2020, Biancardi noted they both "love to be facilitators" and have the power to "impact the game with their unselfishness." Unlike D.J., who has always been his team's primary star, Bronny has been surrounded by older, top-ranked players since he arrived on the high school scene. In James' freshman year, Sierra Canyon's roster was stacked with multiple seniors who now have professional basketball careers. Currently, the Trailblazers have two McDonald's All Americans in the class of 2022's No. 2 Amari Bailey and No. 39 Kijani Wright, who have already committed to UCLA and USC, respectively.
Being outplayed, but not overshadowed, by other stars in his early Sierra Canyon years allowed James to grow into a more aggressive role as an upperclassman. His assertiveness was put on display in his junior year debut, with a one-handed jam that set the tone for this season.
Each team enters the game following a triple-digit performance. Camden High easily handled city rival Woodrow Wilson (Camden, N.J.) 100-54 on Tuesday, and Sierra Canyon routed Campbell Hall (North Hollywood, Calif.) 122-45 on Wednesday.
During the sons' freshman years, LeBron James posted a photo collage of the father-son duos.
Perhaps they will be able to re-create the image in real life after Saturday's game.