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College Basketball

Everybody Loves DJ Burns

DJ Burns Jr. #30 of the NC State Wolfpack cuts the net following their 76-64 victory against the Duke Blue Devils in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at American Airlines Center on March 31, 2024 in Dallas, Texas.
Lance King/Getty Images

Not all NCAA tournament Cinderellas are created equal. Any team with a double-digit seed making a run to the Final Four provides an occasion to celebrate the, ahem, madness of March, but it's the players on that team who ultimately decide just how memorable that run will be. A 12-seed with a bunch of interchangeable, faceless shooters who get hot from behind the arc at just the right time is not destined to live long in the memory. But the 11-seeded NC State Wolfpack, who are headed to the Final Four after upsetting Duke on Sunday, are not that kind of forgettable team. That's because they have DJ Burns.

Burns, a fifth-year senior who played three seasons at Winthrop before transferring to NC State in 2022, is the ideal type of player to lead a surprise tournament run. He's a double-wide 6-foot-9, and his ground-bound interior game is as immediately charming as it is effective. In NC State's decisive 76-64 win on Sunday, Burns spent the whole game backing down, pivoting, and drop-stepping his way to 29 points on 13-of-19 shooting. That he only found time to grab four rebounds between all the lefty floaters only added to the spectacle. This man did not come to the NCAA tournament to jump. He came to get buckets.

The points are only part of the story. Burns has also managed to capture the collective attention of tournament-watchers by obviously having more fun than anyone else on the court. During a tense moment in the second half, while the referees were conducting a lengthy review, Burns was just hanging out at mid-court, dancing along to the in-arena music. When NC State finally pulled away, he found some time between free throws to chat with some Duke fans and inform them that their season was over. "I was raised in a happy environment," Burns said after the game when asked about his on-court demeanor. "I try to take that with me everywhere I go."

There is perhaps no stronger evidence of Burns's ability to capture hearts and minds than the fact that Nikola Jokic, a guy who spends as little time thinking about basketball as possible, was late to his postgame press conference on Sunday because he was busy watching Burns cook the Blue Devils. "I think he's so skilled," said Jokic. "Especially lefty, I'd love to be lefty. Seems like his teammates like to play with him, so, gotta be a good guy."

No matter what happens next weekend, when NC State takes on No. 1 seed Purdue in the Final Four, Burns and his teammates can be certain that they've crafted one of the more memorable runs in college basketball history. The Wolfpack crawled into the ACC tournament after losing its last four regular-season games, with no hope of even making the tournament field short of winning that conference tournament, and they have gone 9-0 since. This team does not have any All-Americans or blue-chip NBA prospects, but it does have collection of memorable guys, Burns chief among them. Over the years there will be plenty of conversations had between basketball fans that will begin with, "Remember that NC State team that made it all the way to the Final Four? They had that one big dude..." and end with, "DJ Burns! Hell yeah, I loved that guy."

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