Damiree “D.J.” Burns: Underrated but not Underappreciated

Many years down the road, when Murray State fans reminisce on the Racers 2021-22 season- one that concluded with 31 wins (tied for the school record), becoming the first team in OVC history to run through conference play with a 20-0 record, securing a spot in the AP Top 25 for six straight weeks, and winning an NCAA Tournament game to advance to the Round of 32; D.J. Burns might not be the first name that they think back on. K.J. Williams was the Ohio Valley Player of the Year, Tevin Brown set all kinds of OVC career shooting records while breaking into the Racers’ all-time scoring list, and Justice ‘Juice’ Hill ran the show at PG to secure an OVC 1st-Team selection. But coming from someone that watched almost every Murray State game last season, I can tell you that Damiree “D.J.” Burns was as integral to the overall success of the Racers unbelievable season as any player on the floor. He was the ultimate glue guy, bringing the energy and passion needed to lift the spirit of the team when things weren’t going their way. The type of player that’s involved in many ways that are well beyond what the box score tells you- taking charges, setting screens, diving for loose balls, or exerting the effort to tap out an offensive rebound that leads to an extra possession. I was fortunate enough for D.J. to give me his time for an interview on our Mental Dimes NCAAM Podcast, where he mentioned “I like to do the things that other people don’t like- diving into the crowd, going for loose balls, and playing physical to overpower people, really anything that can help contribute to the game”. From my point of view, he brings so many intangibles to the table that can help turn a good team into a great one. 

Going back to his high school days, he starred for Sophie B. Wright in New Orleans during his senior season, leading the Warriors to a 35-4 record. He was named the Nola Metro Player of the Year after averaging 18.4 PPG and 13.6 RPG and garnered accolades on the USA Today All-Louisiana 1st Team, making him a 3 star prospect on Rivals.com’s recruiting rankings. He received interest from schools such as UAB, Stephen F. Austin, Tulane, and Coastal Carolina; but decided to start his collegiate career at Southern University, a SWAC school located just about an hour from his hometown. Priding himself as a real genuine guy, D.J. committed to the Jaguars for the opportunity they presented him and how genuine they were throughout the recruiting process, which really stood out to him. 

He played two seasons at Southern, showing out against some of the best competition in the country. He had 14 points and 7 rebounds vs Nebraska in his freshman year, then scored 10 points at #5 Iowa and recorded 8 points and 5 rebounds at Arkansas (an eventual Elite 8 team) during a sophomore season that Burns dealt with obstacles out of his own control. He says the thing that people don’t really understand is that he caught covid and developed a heart condition from it, which really slowed him down and was the ultimate reason he was only able to suit up in 6 games during 2020-21. At the end of March following that season, he committed to Murray State through the transfer portal; a decision he says he will always cherish, saying the Racers coaching staff and players kept it real with him from day one and that the program was a “match made in heaven”. 

Burns plays with a relentless motor, a toughness and drive that can not be coached- you either have it or you don’t. When we asked him what advice he would give to someone with aspirations of becoming a Division 1 basketball player, he said “It certainly takes a lot of hard work, passion. I want young players to realize that this isn’t something you can just wake up and do for 2 hours a day. With the 24 hours in a day, we’re probably in the gym for 20 hours. I’m constantly in there, sometimes you have to even sleep in the gym”. D.J. is the type of player that any teammate would want to go to battle with, one that will give it his all 100% of the time. Whether the game is tied in the final minutes, if the Racers are up 20, or even if they’re down (which rarely happened during the 2021-22 season), it showed that he had the same mentality night in and night out. The leadership he displayed on and off the court was an unquestioned factor to the Racers dominating, record-setting 31-3 season. No moment showed his ‘team first’ approach better than in OT of their NCAA Tournament matchup with San Francisco. Burns fouled out with 1:30 to go in a one point ball game. Instead of heading to the bench in disgust or putting his head down as players often do when being disqualified in a game of that magnitude, he stayed engaged from the sideline- hyping up the pro-Murray State crowd, hollering to teammates to get a stop on the defensive end, and even massaging Justice Hill’s leg during timeouts to keep him from cramping back up. From my perspective, Burns was the heart and soul of one of the best Murray State seasons in the illustrious program’s history. He personally credits the bond and chemistry the team shared for why they had such a tremendous season. “It was never hard to be unselfish on that team, we truly wanted each other to succeed and be great”.

Burns started all 34 games last year for a Racers team that was ranked as high as #19 in the country at the end of February, and received a 7 seed to the NCAA Tournament- the 2nd highest all-time for the program. He finished 2nd on the team in rebounding (6.3 RPG), and 3rd in both steals per game (1.3) and FG percentage (57.5%). He stands at 6’7” and is a tremendous offensive rebounder, grabbing 102 boards on the offensive glass last season, which was 2nd in the Ohio Valley behind only Johni Broome. Burns calls his rebounds “coins”, because that’s “where you make your money at”. He tends to come up with the most “coins” at the biggest of moments- grabbing 15 of them in a win over Middle Tennessee, a team that won 26 games and finished atop the C-USA East Division. He added a 9 rebound performance in Murray State’s OVC Tournament title victory over Morehead State to clinch an automatic bid to the big dance. In a huge non-conference victory over the Memphis Tigers on the road, Burns grabbed 8 rebounds, collecting more “coins” than a guy who is going to be getting paid in a lot of coins very shortly- the surefire 6’11” NBA lottery pick Jalen Duren.

Burns credited that he’ll do “whatever it takes to win” in a mid-season post game press conference. That was proven on many occasions, including his well-rounded 5 point, 7 rebound, 4 assist performance to help Murray State defeat Chattanooga, who finished last season 27-8 and appeared in the NCAA Tournament as the SoCon Champions. D.J.  averaged only 3.9 FG attempts per game last season, but his ability to impact the game goes well beyond scoring the ball. He is skilled enough to handle the rock at 6’7”, has exceptional court vision, and is a big time defensive presence; oftentimes matching up with and locking down forwards of bigger size. He plays with more desire than 99.9% of players, and that ability is something any team in the nation would love to have on their roster. He says through hard work he saw the valley that he could succeed in, that it can take you to some of the most unbelievable positions. He said one quote from Coach McMahon has really stuck with him: “if it was easy being great, everybody would be”.

Murray State is set to start a new era next season, leaving the Ohio Valley to join the Missouri Valley. Head Coach Matt McMahon is gone to LSU. The other four starters from last season have left Murray, KY as well. The heart and soul of last season’s team will be back though. Following the conclusion of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, D.J. entered the transfer portal, but just a few days later announced he would be returning to Murray State. Burns is the only player that contributed significant minutes last season that will still be in a Racer uniform come the start of 2022-23. He says not to worry as the program will be in great hands with Steve Prohm, a familiar face that will be in his second stint with the program, someone who’s been at the foundation of Murray State’s roots since he arrived in 2005. Last time around, the program saw him guide the team to four consecutive OVC Regular Season Championships, including one that resulted in a 31 win season, which is tied with last season’s squad for the school record in wins. Burns’ decision to return came quickly because “Prohm is a guy that everybody loves, a coach that anyone would want to play for, one that’s a family first guy and brings the same energy that I play with”. We asked D.J. if it would be a challenge adjusting from the OVC to the MVC, especially with all of the roster turnover happening. His answer was “It won’t be an adjustment at all, Murray State is a high major in a mid major body. Meaning we are confident we can compete with anybody in the nation. As long as we stay to the Murray State tradition and culture- everything will be fine.”

Author

  • Shea Irish

    Shea is a life-long college basketball fanatic. He has always been passionate about following mid-majors hoops. He's 25 years old and currently resides in Upstate New York. Co-host of the Mental Dimes NCAAM Podcast.

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