When DJ Burns emerges from inside a Marriott in downtown Stamford, CT, and steps into the cool morning stillness at 6:15am on Tuesday, May 7, he’s already an hour into his daily routine. 

An oatmeal, dairy-free Greek yogurt with frozen fruit, unsweetened almond milk and agave nectar smoothie has already been consumed. Numerous t-shirt and short combinations, along with shower shoes, socks and enormous size 15 low top LeBron’s have been neatly stuffed into his official 2024 Final Four backpack. Ambling, but not with a residual slumber as Lil Wayne’s high pitched helium balloon voice swims through his headphones, he folds his immense 6-foot-10 frame into the passenger seat of the waiting gray Toyota Highlander with red leather interior. 

The day’s work beckons. 

At 7 AM, he begins the first of his scheduled workouts, this one at the OverDrive Elite facility in New Canaan, pushing himself through strength and conditioning drills that stress speed, lateral movement and the loosening of the hips along with lateral, forward and vertical explosion. 

Within minutes he’s drenched in sweat. Throughout the day he consumes copious amounts of water.

Two hours later he’s devouring a savory egg white breakfast bowl with spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms and rye toast, between gulps of coconut water as the Highlander eats up the road and the scenery transitions from the bucolic pleasantry of Connecticut to the suffocating congestion of lower Manhattan.

Burns was the third ranked prep prospect coming out of his home state of South Carolina, behind Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, the top two picks in the 2019 NBA Draft. 

A bright student, he earned enough credits to graduate after his junior year at York Preparatory Academy and accepted a scholarship offer from Tennessee, where he redshirted.  

After transferring to Winthrop, he tore through the Big South and was named the conference Player of the Year as a junior in ‘21-’22.

“We were looking to get older and I knew he would be a great addition to our program,” says Wolfpack head coach Kevin Keatts. “I like underdogs, kids that have innate leadership skills and unique personalities.”

“DJ comes from a great family,” Keatts continued. “He wasn’t as valued as much as he should have been. What he does can’t be replicated. And his vision is extraordinary. I really liked the kid and his game was completely different from anyone I’ve ever coached.”

That March Madness success had long been marinating, going back to when his parents watched in wonder as their two-year old son danced and glided around a roller skating rink with his much older cousins. 

“DJ was a very active child who was always physically advanced for his age,” says his mother Takela Burns, a longtime educator and assistant middle school Principal in South Carolina. “He was this hyper ball of energy and inquisitive. If he wasn’t running around these country acres somewhere, he was talking me and my husband’s ear off.”

One of the things he internalized was the family tradition of sharing and giving. His grandmother was a foster parent that also adopted kids from challenging circumstances and with various disabilities. His parents took in a number of children from unstable homes, some of whom lived in the Burns household for years. 

Takela, who played ball in high school, was DJ’s first basketball tutor at the age of six. His father took over the coaching responsibilities when his son began playing rec ball at eight.

That unselfishness, vision and passing acumen on the court that had television announcers like Bill Raftery, Jay Bilas, Ian Eagle and Grant Hill gushing during the NCAA Tournament—pronounced spontaneous combustions of “His footwork’s incredible!”and “Is there anything he can’t do out there?”—were present from Day One.

“Little DJ was such a happy kid who’d give you the shirt off his back,” says his father, Dwight Sr., a South Carolina probation and parole agent who can be seen on fall Saturday afternoons sprinting beside Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney during halftime and post-game jogs to and from the locker room. 

“DJ loved being in the gym. He played guard, center, forward and was very skilled at a young age,” Dwight Sr. continued. “He had a soft lefty shooting touch and a sweet handle. The thing he loved most was passing. He’d celebrate more when his teammates scored than when he did. The only thing he cared about was winning.”

When the coaches would assemble to pick their squads, 8-year-old DJ served as his father’s de facto scout and general manager. “He’d be like, ‘Daddy, pick him!’ and he’d be pointing to a kid that wasn’t very good but was hungry, willing to hustle, unselfish and a good person,” he adds. “I’d ask him about a kid that was scoring a lot during tryouts and he’d be like, ‘Nah, we don’t want him. He’s selfish, doesn’t pass and travels all the time.’ I always listened to him and our teams always won.”

At 10:45am, Burns saunters onto the basketball court inside the high-end waterfront condominium One Manhattan Square building located on 225 Cherry Street. The wide grin splashed across his robust face immediately brightens the sleepy atmosphere. 

He stretches while listening to the playlist he’s cultivated that now fills the gym, with his favorite artists Lil Wayne, G Herbo and Lil Tony in heavy rotation.

“Lil Wayne is obviously the GOAT!” he playfully shouts to no one in particular before starting his workout under the direction and watchful eye of his trainer Nate Brown, who has previously worked with Malik Monk, Derrick White, Brandon Ingram, Tobias Harris and Jamal Murray, among others, during their pre-draft preparations. 

For the next 90 minutes, he pushes through a high-tempo, dizzying array of full court dribbling drills while handling two balls simultaneously. He then transitions to shooting every conceivable shot off pick and rolls, pick and pops and screen and catches. 

The angles while smooching the rock all over the backboard are reminiscent of a pool shark’s english. 

“This summer, our objectives were to sharpen up an overall skill set that he could showcase in an NBA setting,” says Brown. “We elaborated more on stretching the floor because in the pro game, you have to be able to knock down that deep ball.”

Back in the Highlander, he relaxes while heading towards Greenwich Village for a well-deserved lunch break. Stalled in traffic near Union Square as food options are being discussed, the conversation shifts to what his favorite movie is. 

Burns excitedly scoots forward in his seat and straightens up. Through a thin smile, the words burst gently out of his mouth.

“Yo, fo’real, I love Paid in Full with Mekhi Phifer, Wood Harris and Cam’ron,” says Burns. “The dialogue, the cinematography, the music, the Harlem scene in the ‘80s, the wardrobe, the acting, the slang, the story arc, the message and the fact that it’s based on a true story? Maaaaan, I love how all of that comes together. That’s my favorite movie of all-time!”

The driver, stuck at a red light, turns with a mischievous smile to meet Burns’ steady gaze. “Oh, word?” he says to his oversized passenger. “Cool. Change of plans, we’re going to Harlem right now then.”

As the vehicle idles in midtown traffic on the sun-splashed, pleasant spring afternoon, Burns glances out the window at the teeming sidewalk while his ears are assaulted by honking horns. 

“Why is there so much traffic at lunchtime? Why is everyone honking their horns? Why is everyone so angry looking and walking so fast? Man, all of these folks just need a massage,” he says while shaking his head.

As the street arteries become uncongested and the glass skyscrapers of multinational corporations give way to the opulent billion dollar apartment buildings inhabited by wealthy celebrities and business tycoons, Burns notes to himself, “Oh, this is where the rich folks live. I need to come back here sometime and do some shopping.”

When they pass 96th street and creep a little further uptown, as the previous decadence gives way to the Spanish Harlem version of Park Avenue, with its sagging, depressing, brown brick housing project facades, Burns is amazed at the dichotomy. 

He’s told that this neighborhood forged Alpo, the real-life teenage drug lord that inspired Cam’Ron’s character, Rico, in his favorite movie. “This is amazing,” he says softly. “To experience this neighborhood and these streets, to see these people and the real culture behind Paid in Full. Maaaaaan, this is awesome.”

While exiting the Slutty Vegan takeout restaurant on West 135th Street with his order of a plant-based burger and fries topped with vegan beef and cheese, jalapenos, onions, lettuce and diced tomatoes, along with a large raspberry lemonade, he looks up and down the wide bustling thoroughfare and says, again to no one in particular, “Maaaaaan, I love Harlem! There’s so much Black history here.”

His meal is consumed while double-parked with the windows down. As the laughter and rhythms of the street pour in, the crew heads back toward the FDR Drive en route to lower Manhattan.

 As the banter turns toward his musical tastes, he casually mentions that he plays the piano, standup bass, tuba and the saxophone.

Burns sneaks in a quick cat nap before arriving at the Basketball City complex at Pier 36, 299 South Street. 

He walks gingerly into the mammoth complex, where all seven regulation courts are empty. The silence is soon replaced by his curated playlist once again when he pairs his iPhone with a nearby speaker device. Armed with the knowledge of his proficiency as an instrumentalist, as he works out with another of his trainers, Mike Collins, it’s now evident that he moves and plays to an inner biological symphony. 

There are elements of Jazz, Hip Hop, Trap, New Jack Swing, smooth R&B, Rock and Roll, buck nasty Funk and a taste of heavy metal in his gait and body language during the hour-and-a half workout that stresses the long ball off the dribble and the catch-and-shoot from the corners, wings and straight away.

“We started working together after the Final Four run, and I was pleasantly surprised by his humility, hunger, and ability to work at a high level with an attention to detail,” said Collins. “DJ enjoys the hard work. I know he’s tired and sore by the time he gets to me, but he has never complained. Not once.”

“People see how big he is, but they don’t understand how quick he is in tight spaces. He has a nice, smooth release and he’s banging in 200 to 300 long-range jumpers a day during our sessions alone, making over a thousand a week. He’s going to show folks some things they never saw from him in college.”

At 5:00 PM, Burns is back in Stamford at the Haute Healing Oasis Whole Body Wellness Center for an hour and a half of massages and non-steam infrared sauna treatments that soothe his joints, ligaments and muscles. 

After a short rest, he’s back at the Overdrive Elite facility from 8 to 9 o’clock for rigorous stretching exercises and medicine ball work to reduce his upper body excess and strengthen his core. 

From there, he’s off to grab a small dinner portion of baked fish and vegetables before being dropped back off at the Marriott, where a comfortable bed and a good night’s sleep await.

The next morning, around 5:15 AM, he’s up and eager to do it all over again. It’s a routine that he’s been following for six days a week over the last month.

Burns, who received his Bachelor’s Degree from Winthrop in Sociology and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Psychology at N.C. State, has yet to fully reflect on his spectacular nine-game postseason run. 

His mind will invariably wander toward the 24-point, 11-rebound, four-assist gem against Oakland in the NCAA Tournament, where he converted an absurd 75 percent of his shot attempts. 

And then there’s the monstrous performance against Duke in the Elite Eight, scoring 29 points, snagging four rebounds and dishing out three assists in the 76-64 victory that propelled the Wolfpack into the Final Four. 

He quickly turned the page to address the next challenge, proving those who relegated him to an afterthought as the NBA Draft approaches wrong.

At the pro day organized by 4Life Sports Management, the agency that reps him, at the Lakers training facility in El Segundo on May 21st, NBA reps in attendance were shocked at his body transformation. The buzz at the combine centered on his surprisingly accurate three-point shot and the fact that he’d shed approximately 50 pounds after his Final Four appearance. He has since been invited in for private workouts with the Cavaliers, Nets, Bucks and Rockets, with others calling to express interest. 

When Burns recently returned home for a brief visit, he even kept it real while trying on an expensive Gucci shirt that he purchased during the NCAA Tournament.

“When it first arrived, I couldn’t fit into it. Maaaan, those buttons were screaming at me” says Burns. “When I got back from New York, that beautiful butter soft thing fit me perfectly.”

In essence, that’s all he’s searching for moving forward, the perfect fit. “I just need one general manager, one organization, one coaching staff to believe in me and take a chance on me,” says Burns. “It won’t bother me if I don’t get drafted. When I get to Vegas for summer league, they’re gonna see what I can do. And the one team that gives me a shot will not regret it. I’ve been a winner every step of the way. I see no reason for that to change now.”

Photos via Getty Images. Exclusive photos by Kim Toledo.


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