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DJ Burns Jr.: March Madness star is leading a surprising Final Four run and earns praise from Nikola Jokić

By Ben Morse, CNN

(CNN) — March Madness is a time for unheralded players to become national darlings with magical moments and lead surprising tournament runs.

And no one better symbolizes college basketball’s allure than DJ Burns Jr.

The six-foot-nine-inch, 275-pound center has led No. 11 NC State to the Final Four of the 2024 NCAA men’s tournament, beating a host of highly-seeded teams on the way to a semifinal spot.

But it’s not just on the court where he’s earning plaudits – Burns has become an internet sensation with his dainty footwork, forceful drives to the basket and the swagger he has exuded.

He was seen talking to Duke fans, dancing in the middle of the court during crunch time of crucial victories, all while being a dominant force with the basketball in his hand.

All in all, Burns seems to be relishing his time in the spotlight and is earning himself a burgeoning reputation, even among the best players the game has ever seen.

Two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokić – a player whose languid, almost nonchalant nature bears similarities to Burns – couldn’t help praising the fifth-year center.

“He’s amazing,” Jokić said about Burns. “I think he’s so skilled, especially lefty. Seems like teammates like to play with him. That’d be a good guy.”

It’s not just in basketball spheres where he’s getting attention.

According to reports, Burns has garnered interest from members of the NFL community for his quick feet and imposing stature.

Multiple football reporters, including Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy and Fox Sports’ Peter Schrager, have said that they had received communications from NFL teams outlining their potential interest in watching Burns should he try out as an offensive tackle in football.

Although Burns has not expressed any interest in swapping the hardwood for the gridiron, it all speaks to the growing reputation of a unique basketball player.

All-around talent

From Rock Hill, South Carolina, Burns has always played basketball.

At York Preparatory Academy, he scored over 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds and – according to the ratings of, which ranks high school prospects entering the college system – Burns was ranked the fifth-best prospect in the state of South Carolina in the class of 2018.

Burns wasn’t just deft in the way he handled a basketball. He also learned to play multiple instruments as a youth – including the standup bass, tuba, piano and saxophone. His mom, Takela, says his musical proclivities help his basketball style, telling CNN affiliate WRAL earlier this week: “He plays to a beat.”

His mom was a school administrator while his dad, Dwight Sr., is a probation and parole agent for York County, helping recently released inmates try to rebuild their lives on the outside.

The NC State star grew up around people from different backgrounds, with his grandmother running a foster home and his parents taking in other children from unstable homes.

“It’s a part of how I grew up,” Burns’ mom, Takela, told the Rock Hill Herald in 2016, “and I wanted to make sure the kids had something else besides sports to kind of make sure they keep their time spent diversely.

“Our household serves,” Takela added.

Although Burns has received negative comments about his size, his mom says it “fuels him when people are ugly” towards him.

He committed to the University of Tennessee after high school, but after not playing a game during his redshirt first season, transferred to Winthrop University in his hometown.

There, Burns honed his basketball game over three seasons in South Carolina and was named Big South Conference Player of the Year in his junior season by setting career highs in points per game, rebounds and field goal percentage.

He reached 1,000 career points in just his third season with the team, becoming the fifth player in program history to do so before their senior season.

Burns transferred to NC State ahead of the 2022/23 season, quickly becoming a vital member of the team’s rotation in his debut season.

But it was in the Wolfpack’s 2024 March Madness tournament where Burns has blossomed into a star.

Magical run

NC State came into March Madness as the 11th seed and wasn’t predicted for anything remarkable.

But, with Burns at center and the team’s underdog mentality, they have shocked the college basketball scene.

The Wolfpack first beat No. 6 Texas Tech, 80-67, with Burns scoring 16 points in 16 minutes, before overcoming first-round national darling No. 14 Oakland, 79-73. Burns racked up 24 points in 42 minutes in a dominant performance in the win over Oakland.

A further shock 67-58 victory over No. 2 Marquette followed in the Sweet 16 before Sunday’s incredible win over No. 4 Duke – one of college basketball’s historic powerhouses – led by Burns’ season-high 29 points, thanks to his sheer power and fleet-footedness.

Although Burns’ skills on the court had already caught the eye in previous rounds, it was in the win over Duke in which the nation saw his carefree, joyous personality.

Burns was seen smiling throughout the Elite Eight match-up, dancing mid-court during a crucial review near the end of the game and skipping to the bench after being substituted.

“He’s just a fun-loving, people person who loves having fun and enjoys life,” his dad, Dwight Sr., told CBS Sports after the Duke victory. “He was raised to enjoy life. He just loves the game. This is all just fun for him.”

The 23-year-old Burns credits his personality to his upbringing. “I was raised in a happy environment,” the NC State told reporters. “I try to take that with me everywhere I go.”

But that doesn’t take away from his fiery competitiveness.

Social media clips showed Burns exchanging words with some of the Duke fans in attendance, shouting, “Your season is over,” to some dismayed Blue Devils spectators.

Whatever happens when NC State faces No. 1 Purdue in the Final Four on Saturday – the Wolfpack’s first appearance at the March Madness semifinal stage since 1983, coincidentally when they also won their last national championship – Burns has become a college basketball star with his magical run.

And who knows, we could see him pulling on helmet and pads in the future too.

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