DJ Burns Jr. shines bright during remarkable NC State March Madness run

DJ Burns reacts with delight as he watches his teammates dunk during practice. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

Senior forward DJ Burns shares his infectious smile while sharing a laugh with teammates during practice ahead of their Men’s Final Four showdown against Purdue. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Thanks to his artful footwork, bright smile and infectious energy, DJ Burns Jr. has gained the attention of many sports fans during North Carolina State’s remarkable run through March Madness.

Burns has been a key part of the Wolfpack’s success in the Men’s NCAA Tournament, starting with the team’s first ACC Tournament win in 41 years. Averaging 18.3 points in the past four games, he has been instrumental in helping No. 11 seed NC State reach Saturday’s Final Four game against No. 1 Purdue at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.
While his highlight reels are plentiful and have helped turn him into something of a folk hero, they simply illustrate who he has always been.

The 6-foot-9, 275-pound forward from Rock Hill, South Carolina, developed his love for basketball at a young age. He never passed up an opportunity to incorporate the game into daily activities, from dunking on his family’s heads during dinnertime or devotional, to crossing someone over as they tried to navigate their way throughout the house.

His parents, Takela and Dwight Burns, enrolled DJ in a basketball rec league, where his mother was his first coach. His father also coached DJ and helped build a team around his son. Even as a young boy, his height and size were always defining characteristics, and DJ found success in the rec league, winning championships, and later joining an AAU team.

“It kind of just took off from there,” Dwight Burns told Cronkite News. “DJ has been playing basketball ever since he came out of his mama’s stomach, to be honest. Born for it.”

DJ Burns attended high school at York Preparatory Academy in South Carolina, where he honed his skills during some of his formative years and reconnected with Frank Hamrick, who was then the academy’s head coach. The pair first met when Burns was in the eighth grade.

Even then, Hamrick marveled at the fact that Burns was a “natural back to the basket” player. The potential was clear. Burns had aspirations to model his game on the likes of players such as Kyrie Irving.

Despite expectations of Burn’s athleticism, he excelled, which showed when he stepped on the court. His ability to pass the ball, his quickness, crafty footwork, and playmaking abilities every time he touched the ball were skills Hamrick appreciated from the beginning.

Notably, in high school tournaments he came up and competed alongside other bigs like Zion Williamson.

“He’s always had it,” Hamrick said of Burns. “I think the biggest thing that people can see now is that I saw his entire career.”

Burns never took his time on the court for granted. He’s always had a sense of calmness before any game because, for him, it means another opportunity to play.
Burns received his first Division I scholarship offer when he was just in the eighth grade. He was a stand-out among his peers who were older than him, but along the way he had to earn respect.

Something as small as having junior and senior teammates who went on to become Division I athletes pass the ball to him when he was an underclassman offered proof that he had earned that respect.

“He’s special,” Hamrick said. “He’s always been the one who wants everybody (to) ‘let’s just have fun, let’s just play’ – in sports, just like with anything everybody’s competing for their own while they’re (also) competing for the team. He’s always had that but it took him a minute to learn that it’s also something that’s got to be earned.”

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The dancing, smiling and overall joy Burns plays with is part of his identity and it always has been. That energy was on full display Sunday after NC State upset No.4 seed Duke 76-64 in the Elite Eight to punch the Wolfpacks’ trip to the Valley for the Final Four. Burns was named the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player.

“At this point I would tell him, don’t change anything, man. Just continue to be yourself. It’s going to work out,” Burns said when asked what he would tell his 10-year-old self following Sunday’s win over Duke.

In his time at York Preparatory Academy, Burns was a four-star recruit, a third-ranked prospect in South Carolina behind Zion Williamson and Aaron Nesmith, and 103rd among prospects nationally, and was the nation’s 12th-ranked center. Originally a part of the 2019 graduating class, Burns reclassed to the 2018 class and graduated a year early from high school. At 17, he began his collegiate career at the University of Tennessee as a redshirt for a year before transferring to Winthrop University in 2019.

He would go on to spend three seasons at Winthrop before moving to North Carolina State in 2022.

The Wolfpack’s tournament run has been nothing short of impressive given the fact that they’re a No. 11 seeded team. Their ranking hasn’t reflected their game and they have captured the attention of the sports world not just with their nine-game winning streak, but because all nine of those victories have come in elimination games, seven when NC State was an underdog.

Throughout Burns’ career, his parents have been along the ride for big moments, but the most memorable for them?

“The ACC Tournament is when I saw an accumulation of all his hard work come together at once and just the ability to not quit,” Dwight Burns said about watching his son. “The drive, passion and determination. The ability to put himself on the line for that team and that coaching staff playing minutes that he probably had never played in his college career.”

Outside of basketball, Burns has other avenues that he is invested in such as music, reading and even business ventures.

He began playing instruments around the age of 10, starting with lessons on the piano, his first string instrument. He also played double bass, upright bass and tuba. He graduated high school knowing how to play the saxophone.

Burns enjoys making beats when he’s not playing. He currently has a song out titled “Beast Boy.”

“He has the music in his heart. He loves making music,” Takela Burns said.
In the Burns’ household, 30 minutes to an hour of reading was the standard. Takela, an educator, would have her son voice record himself reading. She would also read along with him as well as together as a family.

Now he loves reading nonfiction, history and anime, and as he has gotten older, the romance genre also interests him.
“For the most part, he just found a love for keeping up with whatever was on the catapult list,” Takela Burns said. “It was an expectation and then it turned into a love.”

Burns is the owner of two vending machines which is a business venture he’s been involved with since before college athletes were allowed to profit off their name, image and likeness. He got into it during his time at Winthrop University but when he left for NC State, he let someone else run it for a little while before taking it back for himself.

“He did that last year and I think now it’s like bustling,” Takela Burns said. “That was before NIL – he already had that business mind to get something started for himself.”

Over the past three weeks, Burns has made over $100,000 through NIL deals from brands such as Adidas, Barstool Sports and Intuit TurboTax.

It’s been an exciting past few weeks for the Burns family as they’ve traveled to March Madness games between Washington D.C. and now Phoenix. He’ll have his parents cheering him on, keeping in mind a message his father has sent him many times before.

“I’ve always said one (thing): continue to trust God’s process,” Dwight Burns said. “Continue to trust the process and now we’re at a point where that message has changed – now it’s time to complete the process.

Jayla French(she/her)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jayla French expects to graduate in December 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. French has reported and written for the East Valley Tribune.

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.