Calipari Strongly Hints at DJ Wagner’s Arrival While Securing That Bag

DJ Wagner, John Calipari, Arkansas basketball, Kentucky basketball, transfer portal
photo credit: Kentucky Athletics

The Arkansas basketball program appears to be much closer to getting its eighth commitment in the form of former Kentucky guard DJ Wagner given John Calipari’s comments on Tuesday evening in Little Rock during a statewide tour.

Calipari isn’t allowed to publicly refer directly to Wagner, the rising sophomore guard who entered the transfer portal last month, but he did drop a couple hints at Wagner becoming the next Razorback after his visit this past weekend.

Not long after an audience member shouted a question about Wagner that Calipari declined to answer, he spoke about how much it means to him that fathers he coached decades ago now entrust their sons to also play for him, as Anthony Kristenson reported for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“Billy Richmond’s dad played for me. Adou Thiero’s dad played for me,” he said. “Another guy’s dad played for me.” It’s nearly certain that Calipari is referring to DJ Wagner here given his father, Dejuan, starred at Memphis in 2001-02.

In another part, he referred to freshmen on last year’s Kentucky team who have transferred to Arkansas to keep playing for him. He mentioned Zvonimir Ivisic, Adou Thiero and “hopefully one more who has done this,” another likely reference to Wagner.

What DJ Wagner Brings

The 6-foot-4 guard was ranked No. 4 overall in the class of 2023 by ESPN, but struggled to find consistency throughout his freshman season with the Wildcats. He had a few scoring outbursts, averaged 3.3 assists and excelled defensively in a backcourt loaded with talent including two potential lottery picks in Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham.

With five scholarships remaining, in previous seasons Calipari would still be right in the middle of his efforts to put together a full basketball roster. However, he actually may be nearing the end of his roster-building efforts for this offseason in light of recent changes in the college basketball landscape.

The addition of the alternative routes to the NBA, the transfer portal and NIL deals have rocked the sport. Whether these changes have improved the quality of the game or not is still up for debate, but they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, regardless.

Nor, for that matter, does John Calipari’s desire to be at the forefront of important trends seem to be diminishing.

Yes, there have been a lot of changes in recent years that make a lot of coaches want to pull out their hair. There are an increasing number of talented players being available in the portal each summer and seemingly ungodly amounts of NLI money thrown at some of them. The roster churn means inevitably a few players step into playing roles much less than they imagined given their pedigree at a previous college or coming out of high school. 

When those high expectations aren’t met for some players, it’s now easier than ever for them to change their minds and jump into (sometimes back into) the transfer portal to look for a better opportunity for themselves.

Coaches aren’t powerless in all this. One simple solution is to eliminate the potential issue of playing time complaints by taking on fewer scholarship players to begin with.

Calipari dipped his toes in these waters last year when he brought in Zvonimir Ivisic mid-way through the season. This wouldn’t have been possible if Calipari kept an open spot available from season’s start.

Calipari Taking Things a Step Further

With the situation John Calipari now finds himself in at Arkansas, starting entirely from scratch with only one walk-on available to him at the time he stepped on campus, it’s a real possibility that he takes this new trend one step further.

Last week, Calipari mentioned on the Ways to Win podcast with Craig Robinson that he “might not have more than eight or nine guys” on the roster.

He doubled down on that in Little Rock on Tuesday, as you can hear here:

While having only eight players seems like an exaggeration, it’s certainly possible that Calipari starts the season with as few as 9-10 players despite having 13 scholarship spots available.

As Matt Norlander of CBS said when discussing this possibility on his own podcast, “11 is the new 13 for a lot of coaches.”

Rolling into a season with 11 or fewer players limits a coach’s options, but that’s sort of the point here. There are a lot of potential gripes about playing time with reported NIL deals for certain star transfers skyrocketing year after year and incoming five-star freshmen likely looking to better position themselves. Reducing the number of available minutes available overall means a bigger piece of the pie for everybody, with theoretically less discontentment to go along with that.

Keeping that NIL pie large is vitally important, which explains why Calipari made it a point to meet with key figures of the Stephens family, one of the most generous Razorback boosters over the decades and a reason alongside John Tyson behind why Calipari came to Arkansas in the first place:

Expect the Stephens and Tysons to continue to play critical roles in keeping Arkansas at the head of the pack in the NIL world. Calipari staying in their good graces appears to be essential to the financial health of the Arkansas basketball program in the coming years.

When it comes to a shortened rotation, having 2-3 players at the end of the bench is far more manageable than 5-6 guys not playing as much as they want to.

Even beyond the immediate relief of less playing time disputes, this could potentially dissuade certain players from entering the transfer portal after the season. Several former Razorbacks have followed this path recently including prized freshmen like Layden Blocker and Derrian Ford.

If a player is on the fence about leaving, but they know Calipari is more likely to have 10 players on his roster than 13, it would theoretically be a much easier battle for minutes on the shortened roster where the player in question is already familiar with the atmosphere, practices, system, city, etc., compared to a new team potentially loaded with other new faces.

Calipari also noted that should he end up with a relatively shortened roster, he plans to grab several experienced graduate assistants that will help ensure practices stay competitive with enough bodies to throw at his core rotation.

“I want those [graduate assistants] to have played in Europe or just got done playing and can still play,” he said. “We can use them in practice. The women’s programs have five guys that they call ‘managers,’ but that’s who they scrimmage against. Maybe I do it that way. We have some walk-ons, we have some [graduate assistants], we have eight or nine guys and that’s it. And if there is a 10th guy, he knows he’s the 10th guy.”

As Calipari put it during the Ways to Win podcast interview, if he has too many guys sitting on the bench unhappy with playing time, “they’re going to leave anyways. Why would I develop a kid for someone else?”

2024-25 Arkansas Basketball Roster with Wagner

Below is a quick breakdown of the Razorback roster if DJ Wagner becomes the eighth commitment:

Incoming Freshmen:

  • Johnuel “Boogie” Fland
  • Karter Knox
  • Billy Richmond

Incoming Transfers:

  • Zvonimir Ivisic
  • Adou Thiero
  • DJ Wagner (hypothetical)

Incoming Transfers with their name still in the NBA Draft:

  • Johnell Davis
  • Jonas Aidoo

In terms of on-court construction, the Hogs would be looking at three guards, three versatile wings, and two big men in this scenario.

Calipari has already put together a relatively well-rounded roster, but the biggest remaining needs likely include one more big forward that primarily plays at the power forward spot, and perhaps one more big-bodied big man to back up Aidoo in the case of facing a physical opponent.

Filling all of these needs would put the Hogs at 10 scholarship players, and given Calipari’s aforementioned remarks that would likely mark the end of Calipari’s recruiting cycle in his first year at Arkansas? Only having 9 or 10 players on scholarships would also allow a bit more flexibility on the current roster.

Perhaps Calipari has his eyes set on another foreign player that could join the roster later in the season the way Ivisic did. Or perhaps Lawson Blake will be rewarded for his loyalty by being awarded one of the final scholarship spots for the upcoming season. Neither are guarantees, but both become possibilities if Calipari truly does take a less-than-11-man roster into SEC play.

Finding the key pieces to round out the roster, regardless of how short it ends up, will be key to Arkansas elevating from being a top 20 team entering next season to one that is a serious contender for the 2025 title. Overtime Heroics offers some of the best sports betting picks available on these early 2025 NCAA championship wagers but don’t expect Arkansas to hang with the likes of Gonzaga, Alabama or Baylor in this realm until loading up on more firepower.

Which brings us, conveniently enough, to our next section….

Options to Fill Out the Arkansas Roster

While John Calipari works in silence far more often than Razorback fans are used to after Musselman’s previous offseasons, there are a few names currently connected to the Razorbacks that would fill a lot of these needs.

Coleman Hawkins out of Illinois might be the best fit on the current roster given his combination of size and offensive ability. He averaged 12.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last season with shooting 37% from long range, but he’s also 6-foot-10 and could potentially spend time playing both the four and the five in certain lineups.

JT Toppin is another intriguing name that could fill a forward position. He had a notable freshman season at New Mexico, winning Co-Freshman of the Year honors in the Mountain West Conference. At 6-foot-9, he would provide a great combination of length, rebounding, and offensive versatility. Toppin also had by far the highest offensive rebounding rate between the three forwards listed here.

Wooga Poplar from Miami would be another good depth option, though the likelihood of him joining the roster has dropped now that DJ Wagner has committed. He’s a 6-foot-5 guard/wing that averaged 13.1 points and 4.8 rebounds last season.

Gaining a commitment from Poplar instead of Hawkins or Toppin might force the Hogs into more small-ball lineups next season with more of Thiero (6-foot-8) at the four beside three guards – which likely isn’t a big deal depending on how Cal wants to utilize this already extremely talented roster.

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More coverage of Arkansas basketball and the transfer portal from BoAS… 

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