Home SPORT The tactical and practical choices that made DJ Burns Jr. the breakout star of March

The tactical and practical choices that made DJ Burns Jr. the breakout star of March

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The tactical and practical choices that made DJ Burns Jr. the breakout star of March

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DALLAS — DJ Burns Jr. had a rare moment when the lights and the cameras weren’t around on Saturday afternoon inside the America Airlines Center. NC State’s center was asked by reporters how he preferred to be defended: single-covered or doubled-teamed?

“I prefer winning,” Burns said. “So however you come at me, I’m gonna do whatever it takes to win. I don’t care if that’s passing or scoring. I don’t care if I don’t get touches at all. I care that we win, because when we win, everybody gets noticed.”

Once the lone tape recorder on the table in front of him had been turned off, Burns was asked again, what do you really prefer?

“I mean that s—,” Burns said. “Nobody was knowing my name until we started winning, even with all those stats.” He paused, and then Burns the rapper came out with his way of summing up this incredible, inexplicable NC State run: “Nobody cares about a loser. That’s why I decided to be a winner.”

What Burns wants, Burns gets.

On Sunday afternoon, the nation’s new favorite player got played one-on-one by Duke, and that turned out to be the wrong decision. Burns cooked the Blue Devils for 29 points — 21 coming after halftime — in a 76-64 win that also gave America what it wants: the dancing bear against the Purdue giant in the Final Four.

The 11th-seeded Wolfpack, winners of nine straight, have now won more games in three weeks than they had from the time the calendar flipped to 2024 until the end of the regular season. No one saw any of this coming, if they’re being honest. “God, no,” his mom, Takela, said as she watched her son celebrate on a stage. “Couldn’t have imagined it.”

Her son and his well-traveled teammates, no matter what happens from here, are forever part of March lore. Their run is more improbable than just about any, including the Wolfpack’s 1983 championship, which was a team that was ranked in the preseason and at least had a winning record in ACC play. This one had to win five games in five days at the ACC tournament. This one trailed at halftime in the opening round of the ACC tournament to Louisville — Louisville! — a team whose coach was fired just about the moment the buzzer sounded. And none of this would even be possible if Virginia’s Isaac McKneely had not missed the front end of a one-and-one with 5.3 seconds left in the ACC semis, giving Michael O’Connell a chance to force overtime with a 25-foot banked-in 3 at the buzzer.

Thank the basketball heavens, because it gave us Burns, whom most of the basketball-watching universe didn’t know until the Wolfpack decided to turn into this generation’s Danny Manning and The Miracles. (Time to come up with a nickname for this bunch.)

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

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

The SparkNotes version of how the inconceivable happened: Burns decided to start dominating, the Wolfpack started guarding, and that was that. A monster unleashed.

Tactically, the NC State coaches opted before the ACC tournament to make a small tweak to their defense. Their pickup point would be closer to the 3-point line and not as far extended, which made it so opposing guards didn’t have as long as a runway to attack Burns, who always sags back in drop coverage.

The Wolfpack also got really good at switching around Burns to allow for him to stay back in the paint. That’s a chemistry thing, as much as anything. And it’s no wonder it took some time considering the Wolfpack brought in eight new players (seven transfers, one freshman) last offseason. The idea was to build around Burns, who was an unconventional fit two years ago when the Wolfpack recruited him as a grad transfer from Winthrop.

Burns started his career at Tennessee and left after redshirting as a freshman, landing at Winthrop, where he was the Big South Player of the Year in his third season, averaging 15 points and shooting 62.6 percent from the field while playing only 20.9 minutes per game. He was one of the most efficient scorers in the transfer portal, but his size limited him from playing extended minutes. The Wolfpack decided to take a chance.

“We just didn’t feel like we could pass up on on a guy like that that could give us a low-post presence,” assistant coach Kareem Richardson said. “We knew he wouldn’t be like a normal big man for Coach (Kevin) Keatts. Wasn’t going to be those rim runs, or getting dunks off the ball screen, but to Coach’s credit, he kind of changed his style.”

The original plan a year ago was to bring Burns off the bench as a microwave scorer, a changeup when stars Terquavion Smith and Jarkel Joiner went to the bench. It was an NBA-type approach, with Burns headlining the second unit.

Dusan Mahorcic, who had transferred from Utah, was the starting center. But Mahorcic dislocated his right patella tendon 10 games into the season, and Burns was forced into starting duty. He started the next five games, then came off the bench for three, then was back in the starting lineup for the rest of the year. In a game at Wake Forest at the end of January, the Wolfpack decided to play through him; he scored 31 points on 26 shots in a 79-77 win that was a preview of what was to come this season.

Keatts built the roster around Burns and former Virginia wing Casey Morsell, with the vision that Burns would be the centerpiece of the offense. He got off to a good start but was inconsistent in January, and after a Jan. 27 loss at Syracuse when he scored 10 points on 14 shots and came off the bench that night, Richardson led what was essentially an intervention, working on getting Burns in shape and getting his mind right.

While the Wolfpack lost their final four games of the regular season, and Burns struggled in three of those — one goose egg and a combined 15 points in two others — he had his most dominant performance of the season in a home loss to Duke when the Blue Devils never sent a double team and he scored 27 points.

Since the ACC tournament started, he’s scored in double figures in every game except the Sweet 16, when Marquette double-teamed him and he dished out a career-high seven assists. The difference?

“I just decided I don’t care about being fouled,” Burns said, “and I’m just going to make things happen.”

The attention he brought also started to help his teammates get going. O’Connell, who averaged 4.4 points during the regular season, has averaged 10.2 during this nine-game winning streak. Mohammed Diarra, who scored in double figures in consecutive games just once in the regular season, scored in double figures in five of six games leading into Sunday and has become an elite rim protector. And Burns’ ascension hasn’t taken anything away from DJ Horne, the team’s leading scorer.

“DJ Burns’ energy, it just passes through our team,” Keatts said.


DJ Burns Jr. and teammates celebrate after clinching a Final Four berth. (Tim Heitman / USA Today)

The Wolfpack also quit making the type of careless mistakes that lead to losing. They played well this season when they minimized turnovers and got good shots. During the four-game losing streak that led into the postseason, the coaches were still optimistic because the offense was coming around and the effort was there. They’d just struggled to get stops.

That’s why at halftime on Sunday, when Duke led 27-21, everyone on the Wolfpack side was optimistic. They’d only turned the ball over twice, got shots they wanted and Burns had played only eight minutes because he had two fouls. Before the coaches entered the locker room, they could hear the players inside saying “We’re good. We’re gonna win this game.”

“I don’t think that there was a second where we thought we were going to lose the game,” Burns said. “Even the energy that Coach came in with at halftime, it was completely different from what we expected.”

What was that?

“He was just happy. We were losing the game, and we didn’t get yelled at.”

Keatts’ message: “Y’all are playing good defense. Y’all go out and repeat that again, we’re gonna win this game.”

Burns also realized Duke was going to stick to the game plan of not doubling him: “That’s honestly a bad mistake,” he said. “We decided to take advantage.”

The Wolfpack opened the second half with a mid-post touch for Burns, who backed Kyle Filipowski down and felt Filipowski cheating to his right shoulder, so he spun the other direction to lay the ball in. A few minutes later, he got the ball in the same spot, Filipowski stayed directly behind him, and he got to his lefty hook. Well, it’s not really a hook as much as a lofted flip.

Over and over, he’d back Filipowski or Ryan Young down, and shoot one of his unorthodox shots, placing his shoulder into their chest and lofting the ball over their reach, or spinning away when they tried to body him and pirouetting into space.

“His touch is the best I’ve ever been around,” Richardson said “It never goes in cleanly. It’ll just bounce, bounce, bounce and then go in. I’ve been in college basketball for over 25 years and I’ve never seen one like him.”

On the other end, Duke tried to get Burns involved in as many ball screens and off-ball screening action as possible. But it backfired because it took the Blue Devils out of their rhythm, and the Wolfpack shrunk the floor enough that they couldn’t really race around Burns like they’d hoped.

After Burns spun baseline around Mark Mitchell and then lofted a floater over Sean Stewart with 4:19 left, he was nearly outscoring Duke himself in the second half. It was Duke 17, Burns 15. And the Wolfpack led by 14.

Over the final few minutes of the game, Burns played to the crowd, skipping to the bench each time Keatts subbed him out for defense and chest-bumping teammates, even knocking poor junior guard Breon Pass off his feet onto his chair.

Afterward, he danced on the stage as the NC State faithful chanted the team’s new rally cry — “Why not us?” — and tossed his triple-XL South Region championship T-shirt to his cousin. His parents watched from a distance, filming him cutting the net and pinching themselves that this was really happening.

“This is one of the proudest moments of my life,” his dad, Dwight, said. “All he’s been through, his journey, for this moment to take place today, that’s the pinnacle. Let me rephrase, because it’s not the pinnacle. There’s more to come.”

Burns previewed and reviewed before leaving the arena, holding court in front of reporters and essentially performing his comedy routine.

On his arsenal of moves: “We’re not going to speak on that. We’re not going to give all the sauce away.”

On when this will all set in: “What time is it? (It was 7:30 p.m. CT.) Twelve to 14 hours. Then I’ll wake up, and we’ll be in the gym in the morning.”

On why he didn’t put on the championship t-shirt like everyone else: “I just didn’t want it to get dirty before I can wear it tomorrow.”

Keatts then showed up, joining the media scrum.

Kevin Keatts, NC State basketball, A couple of questions. How do you feel about your coach throwing the ball to you 19 times in 28 minutes?

“I hope that we carry that mentality into next week,” Burns said, flashing his toothy grin.

As for what he’ll have for Zach Edey, the Purdue star who awaits in the next game?

“A good game. I won’t speak on that too much.”

We’ll happily wait. Because we all know, eventually, he’ll have something to say.

(Top photo: Lance King / Getty Images)



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