‘Jersey Is Taking Over’: N.J. Hoopers Outshine the Shadow of New York

Elliot Cadeau was born in Brooklyn, but he doesn’t have any memories of living in the borough. When he was 3 months old, his parents packed up their possessions, strapped him into his car seat and decamped to New Jersey.

Growing up in West Orange, Cadeau became a Jets fan. His mother, who is from Sweden, and his father, who is from Haiti, had a hard time understanding the popularity of American professional football, but they indulged their son’s obsession — to a point. He was allowed to paint his room in the Jets’ colors of green and white, but he wasn’t allowed to play the sport. His mother thought it would be too dangerous. Instead, she suggested that her 7-year-old son try out for a basketball team.

Ten years later, Cadeau is a star at Bergen Catholic High School and a top-10 recruit in the class of 2024. And he’s part of an elite group of New Jersey high school basketball players who may be among the best contingent of talent the state has ever produced.

In addition to Cadeau — the No. 7 player in the country, according to the composite rankings of the recruiting website 247 Sports — the sophomore class includes: No. 1 Naasir Cunningham (Overtime Elite), No. 33 Dylan Harper (Don Bosco Prep) and No. 42 Tahaad Pettiford (Hudson Catholic). And the juniors a year ahead of Cadeau & Co. include: No. 1 Dajuan Wagner Jr., who goes by DJ (Camden High School), No. 3 Mackenzie Mgbako (Gill St. Bernard’s), No. 12 Simeon Wilcher (Roselle Catholic), No. 20 Aaron Bradshaw (Camden) and No. 48 Akil Watson (Roselle Catholic).

“It’s been a great time to grow up playing basketball in New Jersey,” Cadeau said. “The competition and friendship among elite players here is unlike anywhere else. I don’t feel like there’s another state right now that can compete with New Jersey in terms of basketball talent.”

Although New Jersey was home to some of the game’s all-time greats — including Shaquille O’Neal and Rick Barry — historically it has struggled to escape New York’s basketball shadow. In the N.B.A.’s 76 years, 419 players have hailed from New York, compared to just 146 from New Jersey, according to Basketball Reference. And on the rosters for the 2021-22 season, the disparity was just as sharp: There were 33 New Yorkers compared to just 12 New Jerseyites. But in the classes of 2023 and 2024, New Jersey has 10 top-50 recruits compared to just two from New York.

DJ Wagner, the son of the former N.B.A. player Dajuan Wagner, is ranked at the top of the class of 2023.Credit…Gregory Payan/Associated Press

“I don’t want to disrespect anybody,” said Billy Armstrong, who graduated from Bergen Catholic in 1994 and now coaches Cadeau. “But when I played here, the talent wasn’t nearly at the level it is now, that’s for sure. This is my 11th year as varsity coach, and I can say that in the last four or five years, the talent has really taken off. There’s this pride here when New Jersey is in the conversation as the best basketball state in the entire country.”

Armstrong also played collegiate basketball at Davidson and professionally overseas. He pointed to the tenacity and toughness it takes to live in major metropolitan areas in the Northeast as part of the reason so much talent has emerged in his home state. He also thinks there’s a momentum effect in play. Players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kyrie Irving have given children growing up in the Garden State some New Jersey-born stars to look up to. And those young players have competed against each other for years, strengthening each other’s games and helping them get noticed by recruiting services and college coaches.

Since 247’s first rankings were released a year and a half ago, DJ Wagner has been considered the No. 1 player in the Class of 2023. The son of the former N.B.A. player Dajuan Wagner, DJ is a highly skilled combo guard. His game, and the attention around his recruiting, has given his teammates a leg up. Bradshaw, who plays with Wagner at Camden and on their Amateur Athletic Union team, the New Jersey Scholars, started off as a 3-star recruit. He’s now a 5-star, with offers from blue chip programs like Kentucky, Michigan and U.C.L.A.

“These kids have been playing with and against each other for a long time,” Scholars Coach Jason Harrigan said. “And when you get a really special kid in a class — a kid like DJ — his competitiveness rubs off on everyone. He helps raise the level of play for the entire class, and they help him to elevate his game, too.”

Nets point guard Kyrie Irving went to St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, N.J. One reason he signed with the Nets as a free agent in 2019, he said, was to be closer to home.Credit…Brad Penner/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
“I’m from Jersey. Have that a little bit of trash talk, but more the swag, the confidence we walk around in our neighborhoods with,” Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns told The New York Times in April.Credit…Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

The talent level, combined with the recent relaxation of rules that allow college and high school athletes to earn sponsorship money, has led to unique opportunities for many players in the state. Cadeau, who has dual citizenship and plays for the Swedish national team, is represented by Roc Nation and already has a five-figure endorsement through what is known as a name, image and likeness deal, or N.I.L. And Cunningham, the No. 1 player in 2024, recently signed with Overtime Elite, a prestigious professional-development program in Atlanta. He became the first player to sign with the program without taking a salary, preserving his collegiate eligibility.

“Growing up in New Jersey, every kid is dreaming of getting to the pros,” Cunningham said. “When I was little, I didn’t even know what college basketball was. I was just thinking N.B.A., N.B.A., N.B.A. But as I got older, I started thinking more about going to college. With OTE, I get pro training and education, and I get to keep my options open. Plus, I can still make money with N.I.L.”

New Jersey’s coaches, of course, prefer that players remain close to home. And they say that N.I.L. is helping them persuade players to stay at their high school for all four years.

“These players take pride in New Jersey,” said Dave Boff, who coaches Wilcher and Watson at Roselle Catholic. “The fans look forward to having a player who rises the ranks from his freshman to his senior seasons. And the players get to take advantage of the opportunities their talent affords while still being able to sleep in their own bed.”

When he talks to college coaches about what makes this crop of New Jersey basketball prospects so coveted, Boff consistently hears one theme: toughness.

Cunningham left New Jersey to play for Overtime Elite in Atlanta, and he’s proud to represent his home state. “Jersey is taking over,” he said.Credit…Gregory Payan/Associated Press

“The college coaches see that New Jersey guys have confidence, they have swagger, and they aren’t afraid of physical basketball,” Boff said. “When we travel to national games, our players are always surprised by the ticky-tack foul calls. In New Jersey, the refs let our guys beat each other up a little bit, and our guys welcome that. They know they’re making each other better.”

For Cunningham, leaving home wasn’t an easy decision, but he hopes to make it a little easier by recruiting some other players from New Jersey to join him in Atlanta. After all, every one of these players hopes to jump to a bigger stage — be it college basketball or OTE or the N.B.A. — sooner or later.

“Jersey is taking over,” Cunningham said. “Everywhere you look in New Jersey, there’s a high-level basketball player. And soon, we’re going to be all over the country. For us, it’s about showing what our state is all about and making sure it continues the success into the future. It’s not pressure. It’s motivation.”

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