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The Metro Classic is coming to Toms River this weekend and a look at the lineup for Friday and Saturday makes me – a high-school sports writer for the past 14 years – think one thing, above all else.

Wow, I really am old.

Two of the headline players on Saturday’s loaded slate are Lebron James and Dajuan Wagner and that’s cool, because I have watched both of them play high school basketball before. The only catch is, I watched Lebron James and Dajuan Wagner, not Lebron James Jr. and Dajuan Wagner Jr. – who are the two child prodigies that will take the court at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena on Saturday.

They go by slightly different names as their better-known fathers, with Bronny James making an impact as a freshman on Southern California powerhouse Sierra Canyon and D.J. Wagner starring as a freshman at his dad’s alma mater, Camden. Wagner and Camden – the No. 1 team in New Jersey, according to NJ.com – will play Gill St. Bernard in the 6 p.m. time slot and James and Sierra Canyon will take on Long Island Lutheran in the finale, set for tipoff at 9 p.m. with ESPN broadcasting the game live on ESPN3.

Sierra Canyon also plays on Friday night against Gill St. Bernard at 8:30 p.m.

Lebron James was not the first nationally-revered high school basketball phenom but no player was as nationally-recognized at such a young age thanks to ESPN televising some of his biggest games and even assigning a beat-reporter to cover him during his senior season at St. Vincent St. Mary.

Nationally, no player had before, nor has since, established the national notoriety that Lebron did before his 18th birthday.

In New Jersey, however, we had just experienced our own generational talent as James was ascending to the national stage.

Before there was Lebron, there was Dajuan.

I had the good fortune of watching both play live at the Primetime Shootout in Trenton, in what is currently known as Cure Auto Arena. Wagner – New Jersey’s all-time leading scorer with 3,462 points – poured in 39 points to beat St. Raymond’s of the Bronx in the 2001 marquee game and it was clear leaving the arena that when it comes to basketball in New Jersey, it would be hard to top the Dajuan Wagner Show. He went on to play one year at Memphis, was drafted No. 6 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2001, and were it not for health issues, might have enjoyed a longer NBA career.

It took only a year to find an even more breathtaking player than Wagner pass through the Garden State for a brief visit when Lebron – then a junior – and St. Vincent St. Mary made the trip to Trenton to play Carmelo Anthony and Oak Hill Academy. Lebron scored 36 points and showed off his superior play-making ability and athleticism, but Carmelo topped him with his 37 points in leading Oak Hill to victory.

The next year, while Carmelo was leading Syracuse to a National Championship, Lebron returned to Trenton as a high-school senior and exploded for 52 points against Trevor Ariza and Mater Dei of California. From there, he went on to become the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, a three-time NBA champion, four-time NBA MVP and is currently the third-leading scorer in NBA history, to name a few of the many accolades in his record-setting career. As it happens, James and Wagner were teammates in Cleveland for three seasons.

Bronny James and D.J. Wagner have an entire galaxy to cover in order to reach the status of their respective fathers, but Saturday will be a chance to watch what each looks like at the ground floor of their development. Showcases like the Metro Classic are a best way to catch future NBA talent without having to break the bank, although Saturday’s Metro Classic has sold-out of presale tickets.

Both Camden and Sierra Canyon have other names to follow beyond the freshman heirs. Senior forward and 6-foot-10 Kentucky commit Lance Ware is enjoying a monster season for Camden, while Sierra Canyon is led by McDonald’s All-Americans B.J. Boston and uncommitted 6-8 forward Ziaire Williams. Boston is a 6-6 wing and Kentucky commit.

Sierra Canyon also has senior Zaire Wade, the son of recently-retired NBA star Dwyane Wade. While Lebron’s schedule with the Los Angeles Lakers will keep him from attending the showcase, there is a possibility Wade makes the trip to watch his son and his team take on Long Island Lutheran.

Jersey’s Finest

Camden has pushed its way to the top spot in the statewide rankings for the first time since winning the T of C in 2000 with Wagner steering the ship as a junior. The Panthers are the favorite to represent Group II in this year’s Tournament of Champions, although they will likely have to get by the Shore’s No. 1 team in order to get there.

Manasquan is 17-1 and steamrolled through the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II Playoffs last season before being eliminated by Haddonfield in the Group II semifinal. Should Manasquan again dominate its section, the Warriors would likely meet Camden in a matchup of teams currently ranked in the state’s top 10, with Manasquan checking in at No. 8.

Middletown South and Toms River North are also major contenders for a spot in the Group IV final and should either get there, there is a strong chance Elizabeth will be waiting at the RAC. The Minutemen have gone from a middling program three years ago to the Group IV standard in two years under longtime Linden coach Phil Colicchio, who has his team ranked No. 4 in the state at 13-2. Led by seniors Jordan Price and D.J. Watkins, as well as sophomore Jayden Pierre, Elizabeth will square off against Marist, led by former Mater Dei Prep coach Ben Gamble, at noon.

Between the Camden-Gill and Sierra Canyon-Long Island Lutheran games is a potential preview of the NJSIAA Non-Public B championship game. The Patrick School boasts the consensus top junior in the country in Jonathan Kuminga and is currently ranked No. 2 in the state behind Camden. The Celtics will take on Wildwood Catholic, which lost to Ranney on overtime of last year’s South Jersey Non-Public B championship game at Jackson Liberty High School. Most of Wildwood Catholic’s 2018-19 team returns, led by West Virginia commit Taj Thweatt and Temple recruit Jahlil White.

One team that poses a serious threat to Wildwood Catholic in South Jersey is Rutgers Prep, which takes a perfect 18-0 mark into this week and could very well be 20-0 heading into its Saturday matchup with Huntington Prep (W.V.) at 4:30 p.m. in Toms River. Uncommitted 6-9 junior wing Trey Patterson headlines the Argonauts roster, with Patterson holding offers from a collection of high-major programs that includes Auburn, Maryland, Florida, Seton Hall and Rutgers. Patterson will go head-to-head with 6-8 Duke commit and McDonald’s All-American Jaemyn Brakefield, who leads Huntington Prep.

Bulldogs Hold It Down for the Shore

Lakewood and Toms River North participated in the first session of the Metro Classic back on Jan. 11 in Toms River and just one Shore Conference team is on the ledger for this weekend’s action. Rumson-Fair Haven will take on St. Thomas Aquinas, formerly Bishop Ahr of Edison. The Bulldogs are coming off a very difficult four-game week in which they had to play No. 1 Manasquan, No. 8 Red Bank Catholic and No. 2 Middletown South in a span of six days, with a win over Raritan mixed in.

St. Thomas Aquinas presents another unique challenge, with the Trojans boasting a deep lineup led by Wake Forest commit Quadry Adams. St. Thomas Aquinas does have a slight Shore Conference connection – head coach Bob Turco spent the 2017-18 season as an assistant coach on Point Pleasant Beach’s Central Jersey Group I championship team.

More than Basketball

As it always does, the Metro Classic is funneling proceeds from the weekend of basketball to a local charity and this year, the beneficiary is the People’s Pantry of Ocean County. To find out more about the Metro Classic, check out the showcase website.

Here is the schedule for Friday and Saturday at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena in Toms River:

Friday, Feb. 7

St. Thomas More (Conn.) vs. ISchool of Lewisville (Texas) 4 p.m.

Sierra Canyon (Ca.) vs. Blair (Girls) 5:30 p.m.

Patrick School vs. Huntington Prep (W.V.), 7 p.m.

Sierra Canyon vs. Gill St. Bernard, 8:30 p.m.

 

Saturday, Feb. 8

The Phelps School vs. St. Thomas More, 10:30 a.m.

Elizabeth vs. Marist, Noon

Rumson-Fair Haven vs. St. Thomas Aquinas, 1:30 p.m.

Sierra Canyon vs. Rutgers Prep (Girls), 3 p.m.

Rutgers Prep vs. Huntington Prep, 4:30 p.m.

Camden vs. Gill St. Bernard, 6 p.m.

Patrick School vs. Wildwood Catholic, 7:30 p.m.

Sierra Canyon vs. Long Island Lutheran, 9 p.m.

 

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