Right now there is one D.J. Burns personality, but there needs to be two.
The 6-foot-8 15-year old is a gentle giant on and off the court. He’s a talented musician with good grades and diplomatic manners, and a deferential and team-oriented basketball prospect that just finished his freshman year at York Prep and already has five Division I scholarship offers.
Those around him - his coaches, teammates and family - continue to try and foster a second D.J. Burns, one that exists exclusively within the confines of a 5,600-square foot basketball court.
“Coaches want him to be dominant because you’re big,” said his mom, Takela Burns. “But he shares the ball so much and looks for opportunities for others.”
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Burns was recently invited to the Nike Elite 100, an invite-only camp for 100 of the best underclassman prep basketball players in the country. Most of the invitees are sophomores, and Chris Williams, Burns’ AAU coach with the Atlanta-based Georgia Stars, called the accomplishment “major.”
D.J. Burns highlights:
Burns is a quick learner and once he conquers an ability or subject, “he wants to take it to the next level,” according to Takela. He’s approached basketball with this same operating system. The York Prep team eats together after school on Tuesdays and Patriots coach Frank Hamrick almost always drops him off at the YMCA afterward for a solo workout.
When Burns plays basketball video games, he picks one of three players: Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph or Charlotte Hornets big man, Al Jefferson. Those choices are indicative of his playing style. A southpaw with a decadent passing and shooting touch, Burns likes to play with his back to the rim. He averaged a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds per game) for York Prep this past season, and was also second on the team in assists.
D.J. Burns has always been a big kid. As a kindergartner, he was taller than his teacher.
“He scores when he needs to,” said Tracus Chisholm, a York Prep junior. “But also he wants to get his teammates involved and make everyone happy.”
Burns’ intangible qualities are just as surprising as his advanced skill level. Besides his unselfishness, he’s the best talker on the defensive end of the court for his York Prep and Georgia Stars teams, a clue that he’s not afraid to lead his older teammates.
“He’s constantly calling out screens, telling his other players where he’s at,” said Hamrick. “He’s a quarterback.”
He also has more to offer than just basketball ability.
Instruments and basketball
Burns long trailed his mother to weddings, funerals or bah mitzvahs watching her sing and perform. No surprise that Burns is an accomplished musician; he’s learned to play a different instrument each of the last four years.
“Instruments and basketball are the main two things,” he said.
He performed in handbell choir concerts at Winthrop and started playing the standup bass in sixth grade. Maybe both contributed to his soft touch around the basket.
Burns also learned to play the tuba, piano and saxophone in the last three years. He worked extensively on a Motown medley for the sax this past year.
Like any kid born in the last two decades, Burns is very proficient with technology; he crafts beats and electronic music on his computer too. And - he wouldn’t admit to this but his mother confirmed - the big teenager has a nice singing voice.
“It’s a part of how I grew up,” Takela said on Friday, “and I wanted to make sure the kids had something else besides sports to kind of make sure they keep their time spent diversely.”
That’s the first thing I always tell college basketball coaches: he doesn’t need basketball.
York Prep basketball coach Frank Hamrick
Burns’ height is genetic; the cultivated love of music isn’t, and neither is his inclination to care for others.
Burns has watched his family take in multiple kids from unstable homes, including a pair of girls that lived with them for several years each, and his grandmother runs a foster home. Takela is an assistant principal at Dutchman Creek Middle School and embodies the tough love ethos required of a school administrator. Burns’ father, Dwight, is a probation and parole agent for York County and helps ex-convicts try to get their lives together once they’re released from jail.
“Our household serves,” said Takela.
Seeing his family open its home to strangers in need has had a wonderful influence on Burns’ personality. But those around him want to see him park that loving half at the scorer’s table when he checks into a basketball game.
A contemporary big man
Burns completed his freshman year of high school Friday, but he already has scholarship offers from Tulane, Davidson, Western Carolina, North Carolina A&T and Winthrop. Williams said Burns’ recruitment should take off in the next two months.
Frank Hamrick listed Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Wake Forest and a couple others as the high-major schools most interested in D.J. Burns, and South Carolina coach Frank Martin came up to York Prep to see him earlier this year.
The attention might annoy Burns’ 11-year old sister, Nadia, who, at 5-foot-8, will probably be a college basketball recruit in her own right. But it hasn’t spun Burns’ head. Hamrick said that after Pat Kelsey offered a scholarship last August, Burns asked his coach if they were still going bowling.
“He’s appreciative of the offers but his whole life isn’t about that,” Hamrick said. “He’s a kid.”
The Georgia Stars play in the EYBL - the best grouping of AAU teams in the country but also a substantial time and travel commitment for the Burns family. The league is helping D.J. learn to stash the loving part of himself for 40-minute increments. EYBL pace and play are dominated by guards, a fact that can sometimes shunt players of Burns’ ilk to the side.
Williams wants his big man to get more relentless in running the court, rim to rim, finding easy dunks in transition. Fast-break nastiness.
He’s no longer a classic big man. He’s a contemporary big man.
Takela Burns is watching her son begin to grow his game
Burns knows he can impact a game on defense even if he isn’t providing offense.
“Maybe it’s just not my game to score,” he said. “I’m gonna try to score if I can but I’m not gonna be selfish.”
Burns’ physical stature makes it difficult to remember that he’s just a 15-year old. He has plenty of time to cultivate a nastier on-court persona than the one he showed when happily high-fiving teachers at York Prep on Thursday. The EYBL, a more cut-throat enterprise than high school basketball, could help Burns on the court in the same way that it’s hurt other players: by making him intermittently squash his unselfish predilections.
Takela Burns is already beginning to see her boy morph. There were several occasions this past York Prep basketball season when Burns spun his defender and slammed the ball, a flash of dominance that could become more regular in the next few years.