How a midseason intervention fueled DJ Burns' improbable star turn and NC State's miraculous Final Four run

GLENDALE, Ariz. — DJ Burns stared out at a sea of reporters on Friday, trying to find the right word to describe what the past three weeks have been like.

“Hectic,” NC State’s charming big man finally said with a chuckle.

Only a few weeks ago, Burns was the little-known second-leading scorer on a 14-loss NC State team bound for the NIT. Now he’s the grinning, gap-toothed face of the Wolfpack’s improbable rampage to the Final Four.

Needing to win the ACC tournament to claim the league’s automatic bid, NC State reeled off five victories in five nights, one after a banked-in buzzer beater to force overtime. The 11th-seeded Wolfpack stomped Texas Tech and survived Oakland in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, then waylaid heavily favored Marquette and Duke to extend their wild run another week.

Over the course of that 1-in-10,314 run, America has fallen in love with NC State's 6-foot-9, 275-pound teddy bear of a center. Basketball fans cannot get enough of a player who is built like a nightclub bouncer, who moves like a ballet dancer and who speaks with the charisma of a WWE superstar.

More than 200,000 people have followed Burns on Instagram since the start of the postseason. He can barely step outside in Raleigh without being stopped for an autograph or picture. Among his most famous new fans is Denver Nuggets MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, who admitted he was late to a news conference last Sunday because he was glued to a TV watching Burns.

North Carolina State forward DJ Burns Jr. reacts during a game against Virginia on March 15. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
North Carolina State forward DJ Burns Jr. reacts during a game against Virginia on March 15. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Adidas, Raising Cane’s, Intuit TurboTax and CVS Pharmacy are among the corporate brands that have signed Burns to endorsement deals in recent weeks. Ken Caldwell and Mike Naiditch, Burns’ marketing managers, told Yahoo Sports that Burns made “six figures” in NIL revenue over the past few weeks and that they're having to be choosy which offers they accept.

“If we did every single deal he’s been offered, DJ wouldn’t have time to play in the game on Saturday,” Naiditch said with a laugh. “The game has to come first."

Though Burns is ready to devote his full focus to preparing for Saturday’s national semifinal against Purdue, he admits the attention he has received has “been a lot of fun.” Having cameras trail him wherever he goes is a rewarding ending to a meandering college career that has spanned three schools and seemed to have stalled out as recently as a couple months ago.

How DJ Burns ended up at NC State

In spring 2022, NC State head coach Kevin Keatts took a chance on a big man whose style of play didn’t appear to fit his pick-and-roll-heavy system.

Keatts asked the most skilled back-to-the-basket scorer in the transfer portal to join a program that previously hadn’t featured many post-ups.

“When DJ hit the transfer portal, I was like, ‘Man, I got to change,’” Keatts recalled. “I've never thrown the ball inside as much as I have in the last couple of years.”

Burns was the farthest thing from the high-flying centers who previously thrived under Keatts setting ball screens and rolling to the rim for dunks. Keatts adapted his offense to fit a player whose array of low-post moves enabled him to average 15.0 points the previous season at Winthrop despite playing barely 20 minutes per game.

The original plan last season was to bring Burns off the bench as the centerpiece of NC State’s second unit, as instant offense when stars Terquavion Smith and Jarkel Joiner went to the bench. That lasted 10 games until starting center Dusan Mahorcic dislocated his right patella tendon and Burns was thrust into a bigger role.

Burns started all but three games the rest of the season, averaging 16.3 points during that time to help lead NC State to the NCAA tournament. By last March, he had achieved celebrity status in Raleigh because of his fun-loving personality and throwback game.

NC State's DJ Burns, Ernest Ross and guard DJ Horne celebrate in the final minute of the Wolfpack's ACC championship win over UNC on March 16. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
NC State's DJ Burns (left), Ernest Ross and guard DJ Horne celebrate in the final minute of the Wolfpack's ACC championship win over UNC on March 16. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

When Keatts overhauled his roster through the transfer portal again this past offseason, he built a team around Burns. Keatts intended to run the offense through the fifth-year senior because of his knack for scoring in the low post or passing out of double teams.

Burns started the season reasonably well but his play became less consistent in January. NC State coaches grew increasingly frustrated with Burns’ poor conditioning and half-hearted effort on defense. They couldn’t rely on their most important player for 30-plus minutes per night because of a combination of fatigue, foul trouble and defensive breakdowns.

In late January, Keatts removed Burns from NC State’s starting five for a 77-65 road loss at Syracuse. Strength coach Pat Murphy and the rest of NC State’s coaching staff then staged an intervention, candidly telling Burns that the effort he was giving on the practice floor and in the weight room wouldn’t get the Wolfpack to where they wanted to be.

“We owed him the truth,” Murphy said. “And the truth was he hadn’t been as consistent as he was in the summer and the preseason.

“A lot of that fell on us, right? We probably weren’t getting up and down as much in practice as we were before the season got rolling, but on top of that, when he did have the opportunity to get up and down, the effort wasn’t always where it needed to be. He was feeling himself a little bit, drinking his own Kool-Aid. He might have let up a little bit because of that.”

The most encouraging sign to Murphy was how Burns responded to the dose of reality from the coaching staff.

The way Murphy recalls it, Burns “kinda smiled and said, ‘Thank you. I needed this.’”

The aftermath: NC State's furious run

The transformation that followed reassured the NC State coaches that they had gotten through to Burns. As NC State assistant coach Joel Justus put it, “He kind of recalibrated himself and his mindset.”

It started with extra conditioning on the exercise bike, the antigravity treadmill and the rowing machine. Burns also became more disciplined about his diet, even passing on the scoops of ice cream that Keatts treats players to after victories away from home.

Those changes haven’t made Burns trim and svelte overnight, but he began to see the payoff from his hard work by the start of the postseason. He doesn’t show fatigue as quickly. He is better able to defend without fouling.

“He was a guy that always was a force on offense,” Justus said, “but now he has taken a higher give-a-darn level to the defensive end of the floor.”

Junior forward Ben Middlebrooks added that, “At the beginning of the year, [Burns] would bail out a little bit on defense, but he’s really cut down on his fouls and gotten so much more disciplined.”

The NC State coaching staff also helped make Burns’ job easier with a tactical tweak to how the team defends ball screens. Entering the postseason, the Wolfpack have picked up opposing ball handlers at the 3-point line and not as far extended, leaving those guards a shorter runway to attack Burns off the dribble when he sags in drop coverage.

Unleashing the best possible version of Burns in March has unlocked NC State’s full potential just in time. The team that lost seven of its final nine regular-season games has ridden Burns to a nine-game win streak. The team that didn't always believe Keatts when he insisted NC State had championship potential is now two wins away from a miracle national title.

In the Sweet 16, Marquette coach Shaka Smart sent double teams at Burns when he caught the ball in the post, tacit acknowledgement that the Golden Eagles had no answer for him 1-on-1. Burns scored a mere four points on four shots, but he fueled the offense with seven assists, landing pass after pass in the hands of an open spot-up shooter.

When Duke took the opposite approach two days later in the Elite Eight, Burns’ eyes got big. He shook off early foul trouble to demolish the single coverage, going for 29 points on an array of soft jumpers, nimble-footed drop steps and stylish jump hooks.

“For us to win he has to be unguardable, he has to be a guy that is dominant,” NC State guard Casey Morsell said. “That essentially clears stuff up for us guards, getting easy baskets when they trap and everything. Everyone is feeding off his performance.”

Burns has averaged 16.6 points since the start of the ACC tournament, but it's more his infectious joy that has fueled his star turn. TV cameras have shown him leading NC State's boombox walkout before games, dancing to the music playing over the arena loudspeakers during timeouts and stopping to take photos with starstruck stadium security guards after victories.

"In marketing the most important feature someone can have is authenticity," Naiditch said. "DJ is as authentic as they come."

Among Burns’ biggest fans is the coach whose team will face NC State in the first of Saturday’s two national semifinals. Purdue’s Matt Painter likens Burns to two-time NBA All-Star Zach Randolph and says that his message to his team is that NC State is playing like “one of the best teams in the country.”

“The team that was 17-14 doesn't exist anymore,” Painter said. “The team that's 9-0 does. That's the team we're playing.”

The matchup between Burns and 7-foot-4 Purdue giant Zach Edey is the most anticipated of the two Final Four games. Can Edey get Burns in early foul trouble the way he has an army of other big men this season? Can Burns score as efficiently 1-on-1 against the towering Edey as he did against Duke’s Kyle Filipowski?

Burns seems as excited for the matchup as viewers are. He told reporters on Friday that his confidence is “way up.”

“Sometimes we have to reel ourselves back in,” he said. “When you’re making history, it’s easy to feel like you’ve gotten somewhere. But in two games it will be a lot further somewhere than where we’re at now.”