When Kentucky lost to UNC-Wilmington last week, DJ Wagner‘s absence due to a minor ankle injury was obvious. The Wildcats lacked energy and leadership. It showed on the hardwood, as Kentucky was stunned by the Seahawks 80-73.
But on Saturday in an 81-66 win over Penn, Wagner’s presence was felt all game. He was announced as a member of the starting lineup by head coach John Calipari prior to tipoff. Wagner only practiced once during the week, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell. The five-star freshman point guard didn’t skip a beat.
Wagner finished with nine points and seven assists in 30 minutes of action. He went 4-9 from the field and drilled a critical three-pointer that put Kentucky up by 10 midway through the second half. It wasn’t just his play on the court that stood out though. Wagner’s vocal leadership is just as important to Kentucky’s success as his individual play is.
“What DJ gives this team is a toughness,” Calipari said postgame. “You ready for this statement, because I’ve watched him — will to win, he’s not afraid that we’re gonna lose. We’re not thinking about losing, we got a will to win. He leads our team, he talks like he’s a senior. He gathers them and builds their confidence because of what he says to them. And now he’s getting more consistent and doing all the other stuff. Defensively today he did a heck of a job.”
“This guy, whatever I say to do, he does it,” Calipari added. “That moment, he does it. Trying to get him to shoot the ball a little bit higher. So he’s worked on it. Trying to get him to cut hard, he does it.”
After Kentucky’s loss to UNC-Wilmington, some of Wagner’s teammates pointed to the team’s lack of energy as a major reason for the upset. Aside from his ability to penetrate the paint and get his teammates involved, Wagner brings a passion that is contagious to the rest of the Wildcats. Every time Penn was on the brink of taking the lead, Kentucky found a way to respond. That was not the case against UNC-Wilmington. It paid off in the win column.