NC State basketball center DJ Burns becoming a fan favorite

N.C. State’s D.J. Burns Jr. (30) is surrounded by fans as he exits the court after N.C. State’s 84-60 victory over Duke at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.

N.C. State’s D.J. Burns Jr. (30) is surrounded by fans as he exits the court after N.C. State’s 84-60 victory over Duke at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.

N.C. State’s D.J. Burns, poked in the eye in the Duke game last week, was on his way to a doctor’s appointment Tuesday, but wanted to check out a short video before his eye test.

It was posted on the Wolfpack’s men’s basketball Twitter: “Smooth operator,” showing every basket Burns has scored in ACC games this season, all packed into 4:42 of video.

There he was, scoring in the lane against Ryan Young of Duke. There he was with a hook shot against Virginia Tech. There he was, spinning to the baseline against Miami …

“That’s actually pretty cool,” Burns said. “I didn’t even ask for that.”

He didn’t need to ask. Burns, a graduate transfer from Winthrop, has quickly become something of a must-see kind of player in his first year with the Pack, a 6-foot-9, 275-pound center with a variety of back-to-the-basket moves and left-handed shots, the big man with the soft touch.

After scoring 18 points in 16 minutes in the 84-60 beating of Duke, Burns had Wolfpack fans at PNC Arena chanting his name late in the game.

“What I’ve learned is he’s a tremendous fan favorite here at N.C. State,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said, smiling. “I told him after the Duke game that the guards did all the scoring early and then he came in and the fans were yelling, ‘DJ! DJ!’

“But scoring transfers to every level. You saw what he could do in the Big South (Conference) scoring the basketball. He’s proven at the Power 5 level and the ACC that he can also score the basketball, and he’ll get better.”

Duke’s Dereck Lively II (1) and Mark Mitchell (25) defend N.C. State’s D.J. Burns Jr. (30) during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Duke at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. Ethan Hyman

Burns was the Big South Player of the Year in 2021-22, averaging 15 points a game and shooting 62.6% from the field. He’s scoring 9.7 points a game through his first 17 games with the Wolfpack, but averaging 13.2 in six ACC games.

“He’s had some big moments for us,” Keatts said. “We finally have a guy we can throw the ball in and can get us some baskets. He gives us a different dimension on the offensive end.

“Tremendous kid. His teammates love him.”

Any video or Tweet pic from the postgame after a victory usually has the big man — his Twitter handle is @beastboyburns — somewhere in the middle. After the Pack’s 73-69 win Saturday at Virginia Tech, there he was, arms crossed, shades on, confidently nodding his head as the team drenched Keatts with water bottles.

“So far I’d say it’s been going pretty well,” Burns said of his play this season. “There’s a lot of room for improvement which we hope to capitalize on this half of the season.”

Such as?

“Continue to get better on defense every game,” he said. “That’s pretty much what my coaches have asked of me and something I’ve been trying to make my focus. They’ve given each of us a challenge and that’s been mine, just being more active in general.”

N.C. State’s D.J. Burns Jr. (30) knocks the rebound away from Louisville’s Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (5) during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Louisville at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. Ethan Hyman

Much has been said about his weight, which does fluctuate. He is a big man, in every sense. But he always has been — Burns was 6-7 in the eighth grade growing up in Rock Hill, S.C.

A former 4-star recruit out of York Prep in Rock Hill, Burns first signed with Tennessee, redshirting his freshman year as Vols coach Rick Barnes tried to reduce his weight. Transferring to Winthrop, Burns played three seasons and scored more than 1,000 career points.

And basketball isn’t his only talent. Seems he also plays the upright bass, piano and saxophone.

“That comes from the culture of my mom’s side of the family,” he said. “They’re very musically inclined.”

His favorite instrument, he said, is the upright bass because “I can stand up and be moving around when I’m playing.”

Kind of like his hoops, yes? Burns likes to stay on the move when he’s playing, bumping and grinding inside, using his bulk to get position for his turnaround shots and jump hooks.

“He could be the best low-post scorer in the country, I feel like,” Wolfpack guard Jarkel Joiner said after the Duke game. “It’s just exciting to see DJ go to work.”

Burns and the Pack (13-4, 3-3 ACC) host Miami on Saturday in a noon game at PNC Arena, having had a week off between games. The Wolfpack led most of its first game against the Hurricanes this season before taking an 80-73 road loss.

“We’re getting better at closing out games,” Burns said. “At the beginning of the season we dropped a few at the end. We wanted to make sure we put an emphasis on finishing games and that’s something we’ve put a lot of detail into and have progressed.”

It showed at Virginia Tech, where the Pack held on for a tough road win. And there will be more tight ACC games to come as the Wolfpack tries to build an NCAA tournament resume.

“If we’re locked in every game, we can win every single one we play,” Burns said. “I believe that wholeheartedly.”

And about that name …

His full name is Dwight Keith Burns Jr., yet everyone calls him “DJ” and not “DK.”

“My name is Dwight Junior. But it was kind of confusing. My dad is Dwight and when my mom said ‘Dwight’ we both answered. So we came up with “DJ” for Dwight Junior.”

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.

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