RALEIGH, NC — DJ Burns is a big man.

And not just because he plays center on NC State’s basketball team.

DJ Burns is a big man.

At 6-9 and at least the 275 pounds he’s officially listed, it would be easy to mistake him for a member of Dave Doeren’s football squad. He might even be a successful offensive lineman, considering the physical style with which he plays and his amazingly nimble feet for a man his size.

It’s a career choice those trying to guard him on the low post probably wish he’d have made.

In a world of 7-footers firing up 25-footers instead of dominating the paint, Burns is an old-school, back-to-the-basket force for the Wolfpack. Or as his coach Kevin Keatts called him, “a dinosaur when it comes to today’s centers.”

He’s like a dinosaur, all right. Just not in the way Keatts described it.

Imagine Godzilla destroying everything in his path as he takes an entry pass from a teammate, puts the ball on the floor and starts bullying his way to the basket.

He’s been nearly unstoppable in those situations. And not just on Saturday, when he went off for a career-high 31 points in carrying the Wolfpack to a 79-77 win at Wake Forest – a victory that further strengthened State’s already impressive NCAA Tournament resume. 

There are a lot of game-changing transfers that came into the ACC this season. Wolfpack point guard Jarkel Joiner, among them. None, however, has had as large of an impact – pun intended – as the 2022 Big South Conference Player of the Year from Winthrop.

“It doesn’t matter who’s guarding him,” Joiner said. “He’s a natural-born scorer. He’s been doing it everywhere (he’s been).”

Burns was a 4-star prospect coming out of high school in 2018 and was the 3rd-highest ranked recruit in South Carolina behind only Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.

Those 2 also happen to be the 1st 2 players selected in the 2019 NBA Draft. It’s taken Burns longer to blossom because of concerns about his conditioning.

He spent his true freshman year redshirting at Tennessee trying to get into better shape before transferring to Winthrop, where he put up big numbers for the past 3 seasons despite averaging 21 minutes or less.

His performance begged the question of what he might be able to accomplish if he could ever stay on the court for more than half the game.

Ask no more.

Since fellow transfer Dusan Mahorcic went down with a knee injury on Dec. 6, Burns has logged 30 minutes or more 5 times. That includes 33 minutes against the Deacons, in which he also pulled down 9 rebounds while going 14-of-26 from the floor.

“I’ve got every post guy’s AAU coach calling me right now,” Keatts joked. “Just for the record, anyone who says Kevin Keatts is a guards coach, I want everybody to understand that my post guy took 26 in a game.”

It happened out of necessity rather than choice.

With star guard Terquavion Smith relegated to the bench with foul trouble and Casey Morsell struggling through an off shooting night, Keatts didn’t have many other options. At one point in the 2nd half, State’s offense consisted of feeding Burns and getting out of his way.

And there was nothing Wake Forest could do about it.

“Once I got going, it felt like it was just going to keep going,” Burns said. “I had zero intention to stop. And once I started, it felt really good.”

When the Deacons played him straight up, he used his wide body to bull his way to the basket and score. When they doubled him, he simply used his court vision and passing ability to find Morsell and LJ Thomas for open 3-pointers that helped the Wolfpack overcome a 10-point deficit.

Putting him at the free throw line worked for a while. He started 1-for-5. 

But even that backfired when Wake coach Steve Forbes chose to foul him with just over a minute remaining in a tie game. With the game on the line and the Deacons student section body shaming him with chants of “Whopper! Whopper!” he calmly sank both shots.

Burns took the taunting with good humor, saluting the crowd by blowing a kiss. 

While that probably didn’t endear him to the folks in Winston-Salem, it’s just the kind of personality that has turned him into something of a cult hero in Raleigh.

After a video of him wearing sunglasses while dancing in the locker room to celebrate a win at Virginia Tech earlier this season, members of State’s student section showed up to the next home game wearing similar shades.

The energy level inside PNC Arena rises exponentially any time he gets up off the bench. And his teammates feed off it.

Burns’ juxtaposition of brute strength and soft touch, along with his ever-present smile, has had an undeniable impact on a Wolfpack team that at 17-5, already has 6 more wins than it did all of last season.

While in the process, helping him become a big man on campus for reasons other than his size.