Coming into Monday night, much had been made about DJ Wagner‘s slow start through the first two weeks of the 2023-24 season. The five-star high school recruit was essentially pre-destined to play for John Calipari, but, at least through four games, he had yet to live up to years worth of high expectations. Not too shocking in reality, but not what a success-craved fanbase was hoping for.
Until he popped off for 22 points against Saint Joseph’s.
Wagner entered Monday’s game averaging a mere 9.5 points while shooting a tough 31.9 percent overall from the floor. His three-point mark was even worse — 4-17 for a poor 23.5 percent mark. But the hard-nosed guard flipped the narrative when facing a red-hot St. Joseph’s team that gave Kentucky all it had down the stretch.
Wagner didn’t shoot with high efficiency against the Hawks to reach his 22 points — 7-17 overall and 1-4 from long range — but he went 7-8 from the free throw line. 10 of his points came in the second half and seven more in the overtime period. He added three rebounds, six assists (with three turnovers), one steal, and one block to his final stat line in 36 minutes of action. Wagner was extra aggressive attacking the basket and finding slivers of open space in the lane to get himself in a rhythm.
“It feels great,” Wagner said of finally having his breakout game. “But like I said, I ain’t worried about no individual performance. I’m happy we got the win. Whenever we get a win, I’m happy. The most important thing is we were able to come out with the win today.”
That’s the response of a good teammate, and it was his response for most of his postgame conversation with reporters. It’s all about we with Wagner, not me. Not all freshmen understand that, especially when they’re struggling on their own. He said afterward he was having fun out there on the floor, even with Kentucky’s back against the wall.
It helps that Wagner has a pair of fifth-year veterans in his ear helping coach him through the early issues. At this point, you’ve probably seen the clip of Tre Mitchell from Kentucky’s last game against Stonehill, where Mitchell is directing expletives toward Wagner during the game, encouraging him to keep shooting the ball.
“I did get a chance to see the video that was floating around of me talking to DJ, and you heard every single word of it,” Mitchell said with a smile. “They must’ve had a mic on the baseline or something that caught me. But it’s stuff like that, just trying to get them out of their own way. You have people that will hit that wall and bounce off of it. These dudes hit that wall and then hit it again and ran through it.“
Fellow veteran Antonio Reeves shared a similar sentiment.
“Last game, we just told him to keep shooting it,” Reeves said he told Wagner. “Keep trying to find your rhythm. You’re a freshman, things like that. That’s what happens sometimes when you go through that little phase. Definitely telling him to play with a lot of confidence.”
Wagner certainly played with plenty of confidence against Saint Joseph’s. For the most part, he has all season, but the shots were finally falling on Monday. The next positive step will be doing it consistently. Sometimes, when you’re as talented as Wagner, all it takes is one game to get rolling.