Home SPORT ‘He’s like a polar bear and a ballerina’: The incomparable DJ Burns is powering NC State

‘He’s like a polar bear and a ballerina’: The incomparable DJ Burns is powering NC State

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‘He’s like a polar bear and a ballerina’: The incomparable DJ Burns is powering NC State

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PITTSBURGH — DJ Burns Jr. is holding court again. NC State’s gregarious giant with the gap-toothed grin is swarmed by reporters near his locker the day before an improbable appearance in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Oakland. He is marveling at what an incredible stage he’s just stampeded onto. “That’s the beautiful thing about March Madness,” he says. “If there’s something interesting, they’re going to find it at this time of year.” Now is when previously undiscovered stars and compelling storylines get introduced to a national audience, in other words. So then what is it about Burns that has made America, about a year behind the entire city of Raleigh, N.C., fall in love with him this month?

“I would definitely say my size is 100 percent the reason. I think if I was a skinny guy, at 240 doing this, it wouldn’t even be looked at, at all,” says Burns, who is 6-foot-9 and more than 300 pounds, no matter what the official roster says. He pats his belly. “Even though we’re gonna get rid of this — and we are getting rid of it right now — it feels good to be different and have it work. I wouldn’t say I lean into it, but I think it’s cool. It gave me an avenue. It gave me a platform that most people don’t have, just because I’m unique.”

Burns does things few people of his proportions could, not that there are many NFL lineman-shaped people even endeavoring to play basketball. From the baseline spin moves to the silky-smooth lefty hooks to the dimes he drops out of double- and triple-teams to the softest touch you could ever want from a big man. “He’s like a polar bear,” NC State strength coach Pat Murphy says. “and a ballerina.” A dancing bear, in other words. Talking bear, too. Burns has a mouth on him, and he’s not afraid to use it.

After the Wolfpack stunned Duke in the ACC tournament with a raucous crowd behind them: “We know what it’s about. They ain’t really cheering for us, so we move on. Thank you, though. They were cheering for Duke to not win. There’s a difference.”

After Oakland fans taunted him — some with cracks about his weight — throughout Burns’ pregame warmup on Saturday night, he paused, stared into the screaming horde, and grinned. “Keep talking,” he told them. “The fat-shaming only fuels him,” his mother, Takela, says. “Tell them thank you. When you call him Whopper, when you put him down, when you’re ugly, you’re just giving him jet fuel.”

After almost every bucket he scored against the Golden Grizzlies, he had something for those fans. He pressed a finger to his lips for a shhhh! He ran back on defense with his head cocked to the side so they could see his smile. He played 42 minutes, had 24 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, and as Burns iced the game in overtime, one of those hecklers lamented, “This big mother— is going to beat us.” Again.

Led by Burns, NC State won seven postseason games in 12 days to go from NIT-bound to ACC tournament champions and headed to their first Sweet 16 in almost a decade. The Wolfpack will face South Region No. 2 seed Marquette on Friday in Dallas. Burns, the ACC tournament MVP, averaged 16.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and shot 65 percent from the field in those seven victories. He’s 23, has been in college for six years — at Tennessee and Winthrop before this — and played 162 games, but Burns saved the best basketball of his life for last.

For those who staged an intervention of sorts with him two months ago, this surge is especially rewarding.

“It’s awesome to watch,” Murphy says. “The kid put in the work. Now, he wavered, and it took some pulling and pushing and prodding. He was really low back in late January, started hitting the wall, and was in a funk. That funk twisted him down into kind of a bare-minimum guy for a little bit. But then we had that meeting, and it flipped a switch. We sat him down and told him what it was going to take and how much we needed him, and he thanked us. He said, ‘I needed this.’ Because he knew it.”


NC State assistant Kareem Richardson couldn’t sleep. It was sometime in the wee hours of Jan. 28, after a loss at Syracuse, the only time all season head coach Kevin Keatts did not start Burns. The big man made just 5 of 14 shots in that game. He and the team were spinning their wheels.

“It was no secret that he wasn’t in the shape he needed to be in, the conditioning he needed to be in,” Richardson says. “And I just sat up in bed that night and said, ‘Screw this, man. We’ve got to try to hold him a little bit more accountable.’ The next morning, we put together the plan.”

With input from the program’s academic staff, nutritionist, strength coach, training staff and coaches — plus an assist from his parents — Team DJ outlined exactly what they thought it would take to get Peak DJ in time for the postseason. Step 1 was getting the biggest human being on campus to stop sleeping on a bean bag chair.

“He was in the middle of a move, trying to do it all himself, and he wasn’t getting good rest,” Takela says. “I remember one of the coaches calling me and saying, ‘Mrs. Burns, what is going on with DJ?’ Collectively, everybody said, ‘We need all of him.’ And DJ saw that as a challenge. He said, ‘I got work to do.’ From there, a lot of people helped him and he just stepped and did the work. We went down there and purchased him a bed and made sure we were doing our part. It was a total team effort.”

There were strict plans for extra conditioning and lifting, more strenuous basketball-specific workouts and a stricter diet. Richardson texted in the morning to be sure Burns was coming and the nutritionist walked him directly from workouts to the healthy meal option of the day. “But to his credit, he bought in,” Richardson says. “None of this works if he doesn’t buy in.” When Burns had previously tried to do this on his own, he’d starve himself all day and then the late-night hunger pangs and junk-food cravings “were attacking him,” Murphy says. “And he’s a superstar in Raleigh, right? So he’s going to go anywhere he wants and be the life of the party, and he’s going to eat.”


DJ Burns Jr. became a fan favorite during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. (Joe Sargent / Getty Images)

But give Burns a challenge, and he’ll rise to meet it. During a redshirt season at Tennessee in 2018-19, the former four-star recruit transformed his body in the Volunteers’ vaunted “Fat Camp,” shedding more than 30 pounds and getting under 240.

“A testament to his hard work. It was a grueling process,” Tennessee strength coach Garrett Medenwald says. “The thing with DJ is, we always knew the talent, the ability to score, the footwork. It’s been fun just hearing his thought process and how his growth has been (since he left), not only from a basketball standpoint, but from a maturity standpoint.”

Burns, the Big South’s freshman of the year in 2020 and player of the year in 2022 at Winthrop, recently bought a necklace with a charm that depicts sunshine popping out behind a storm cloud. He wears it everywhere now, even during games.

“Just a little reminder,” he says, “that even when it’s rainy, you can still have the sunshine … and understand that you don’t always have to feel good to get your job done. Crazy thing about this is, once I started that plan, I had a stretch where I couldn’t score for crap. And it’s like, ‘Dang, why am I doing all this to play worse?’ But you just gotta be consistent.”

Indeed, it got worse before it got better. Burns made just 5 of 13 shots and scored 12 total points in the first two games after initiating Operation Feel the Burns. There were other dips. In his final game in February and first game in March, at Florida State and North Carolina, he scored six total points. The Wolfpack lost 7 of 11 games to end the regular season and looked cooked.

And then, with the clock running out, when the next loss would be the last loss, came a full-blown breakthrough. “Exactly the miracle you want,” Burns calls it.


“I would always tell him, ‘DJ, be who Keatts recruited,’” his mother says. “The staff would tell him, ‘DJ, we’re going nowhere without you.’ But he is what I call an overcomer. He may have a slump, a down time, but he’s very reflective and resilient. Once he evaluates where he is, he’s always going to come back better. Well, what you’re seeing now is what Kevin Keatts recruited. Finally, praise God.”

Burns had 27 points in a late regular-season loss to Duke, 19 in the ACC semifinals against Virginia, 20 in the title game against UNC, 16 in a first-round NCAA upset against Texas Tech and arguably his best game of the season in the second round against Oakland. Also an aspiring rapper, he recorded a song about himself called “Beast Boy” last year.

His teammates all nod in agreement with that chosen moniker.

“I go against him every day in practice,” junior forward Ben Middlebrooks says. “I feel the pain those guys feel when they go against him on the other team. When he gets going, there’s no one in the country who can stop him.”

“Literally unguardable,” junior guard Jayden Taylor adds. “I’ve never seen a person that big with that much skill. Ever.”

“Best big in the country,” senior guard Casey Morsell says. “If you hate on DJ, I don’t know, something’s wrong with you. How could you hate on that man? He’s amazing.”

Burns has learned a thing or two on his long and winding path to becoming a March darling. First, that if you’re 6-9, 300-ish pounds and pirouetting around a basketball court, people are going to talk. But more importantly, he says, listen more than you speak and work hard when no one is watching.

“The work that’s going to actually get you better,” he says, “is the things you do by yourself.”

And sometimes, it’s actually more important what you tell yourself. See, not even the man who came up with the plan is sure it really changed all that much in Burns physically. He probably couldn’t have logged 42 mostly fresh minutes in a high-stakes basketball game two months ago, but the bigger gain happened between his ears.

“You put in a little extra work, make some deposits, and now you feel like you’re able to make some withdrawals when you need to,” Richardson says. “Now he thinks he deserves it. When you do the work, you’re ready for the payoff.”

(Top photo: Mark Goldman / AP)



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