CBS Sports

RALEIGH, N.C. — Few players in recent memory have done more with unexpected opportunities afforded to them like DJ Burns has over the past three-plus months. The NC State star became one of the biggest deals in college sports after the Wolfpack won nine straight elimination games in March and made arguably the most unexpected Final Four run in the history of college basketball

Remember, Burns and the Wolfpack were 17-14 at the end of the regular season. They trailed at halftime to god-awful Louisville in the first round of the ACC Tournament before flipping the switch and saving/extending their season. Then came the dream push all the way to Phoenix for the Final Four as a No. 11 seed. It's a vintage college basketball story, one basketball fans will harken back to decades from now. 

At the center of that story was Burns, the benevolent big-bodied center with balletic feet, gentle touch and keen passing ability. He was easy to love and, let us not forget, an at-times dominant presence. Burns described the Final Four run as "an out of body experience" and, surprisingly, one that he didn't take full advantage of.

"I didn't really enjoy it as much as I should have," he told CBS Sports. "I was going straight back to the room, just trying to stay out of anything that could be in the way. I would definitely have enjoyed it a little more if I could do it again."

Pretty interesting to hear that from a guy who became one of the faces of a sport for a three-week period. Burns embodied of the power of the NCAA Tournament's marketing appeal.

State's run ended vs. Purdue in the Final Four, but Burns' story is not over. He's considered a long shot to be picked in the second round of Thursday's NBA Draft, but he still has a bright future and potentially long professional career awaiting him. The reason for that has as much to do with his college career as what he's done since it ended on April 6.

Earlier this month I took a trip to North Carolina to see Burns train and see for myself what was first reported in May: Burns has undergone a drastic weight loss and body metamorphosis. The first report on this front, according to Burns, was not true. It was said that he shed 45 pounds in six weeks — a weight loss so drastic it would seem to border on unhealthy. 

"Honestly, I had to get on my agent about that," Burns told CBS Sports. "They got a little excited. I don't know where the hell 45 came from."

In truth, Burns had shed a little more than 30 pounds in the six weeks after the end of the season. But now? The 45 number is true, it just took a bit longer to get there. Burns told me he officially shed 45 pounds from his in-season playing weight earlier this month. And in the past two weeks, he's burned even more fat from his figure. 

"Getting it done and not done," he said. "Still more to go." 

Burns' workout was, in a word, vigorous. He'd wear specialty goggles that flickered, making it difficult to try and catch a tennis ball with alternating hands. The rope-pulls on a squishy balance ball seemed hellish. There were medicine ball spike drills and intense leg presses. After an aggressive hour-long workout, Burns still wasn't done. He hopped on the specialty U-shaped treadmill to shed another cluster of calories.

Seeing it up close, it was incredible how different — but still especially strong — Burns looked. His figure has absolutely transformed from the guy who we all saw in the NCAAs. The most impressive takeaway I had from witnessing his training up close was how enthusiastic he was about each part of it. He didn't lethargically walk into the gym. He didn't cheat on any drill. This is a man who is charged up and reborn with a new body. He's done it all with diligent guidance from his trainer, Russ Dudley, who runs Top Notch Performance out of North Carolina. Burns is understandably sensitive about his weight (he asked to not share his current number or his previous one), but he is still the affable, jovial baller the country got to know in March. 

His sensitivity to being bigger stems from his childhood, when he was always much taller than his peers.

"I didn't really like it as much because when you look way different from everybody else, it always looked like I was in fifth grade when I was in third," he said. "It was like I was supposed to be in college when I was turning 14. It was just always a little awkward for me. I was a little awkward guy, because I didn't really know how to move about being tall, but I kind of grew into it." 

Burns, who loved playing a lot of sports but always took basketball way more seriously than anything else, became more comfortable with his body and height when he started high school. That's when his personality emerged as well, the bright-minded kid came through more and more. 

"I keep hearing people talk about the whole 'aura' thing," he said. "They're like, the more you lose weight, you lose your aura or something. I'm like, 'Yeah, I've never felt better in my entire life.' I have more energy than I think I've ever had. I feel like a kid again, the way my body feels."

He calls it "the mission," and it's about more than just being in improved shape for NBA teams. Burns said he doesn't have back discomfort for the first time in years. His energy levels feel sent from God. He feels as strong as ever, too. Finishing college signaled a transition period in his life. Mentally, he was fully and finally ready to make drastic changes about himself. 

"It's been the most interesting experience of my entire life," Burns said. "I don't think I've ever had to work this hard and be this disciplined. And I think that everything that I've learned is something that I can take with me to the league or wherever I end up playing basketball, specifically preparing for the draft. I'm just ready. I don't think that I've ever had the understanding of what I need to do more so than I do now."

Why couldn't this have happened sooner? Well, it sort of did. In January, after Burns was benched in the starting lineup without notice, he took the short-term demotion in stride and knew he had to make some changes if he wanted to end his college career without regrets. With the help of NC State's staff, Burns made a few changes to his regimen and lifestyle. He started to shed some of that weight then. Now, it's every part of his lifestyle that's impacted, including having a dietician who he talks to daily. Bread is gone from his diet, as is soda (though he said he's long stayed away from that). There are strict limits, nearly eliminating things like pancakes and hamburgers. He's downing multiple smoothies daily and taking to avocados more and more. 

Burns and NC State made it to the Final Four after winning 10 straight elimination games. Getty Images

"Everything about it has been different," Burns said. "The way that I eat, the way that I sleep, limiting all of the hanging out and just getting back to everything that matters and focusing on why what my purpose is and why I'm where I'm trying to be."

Burns has been invited to a handful of team workouts, most notably Brooklyn, Cleveland, Houston and Milwaukee. He's selling his work ethic and enhanced conditioning just as much as relying on the game tape that got him in the door for a few franchises to begin with.

"The biggest thing that is a common misconception is that my game won't translate. I've been told that my entire life, is that my game won't translate to playing on the EYBL circuit, to playing at Tennessee, going down to Winthrop and being able to come back up [to NC State]," Burns said. But he followed with a good point. 

"I don't think I've ever played for a losing team in my entire life," he added. 

He's right. At the college level, including the 2018-19 Tennessee squad that Burns was rostered on but redshirted for, his Tennessee, Winthrop and NC State teams combined to go 150-53 (.739), each of them making the NCAA Tournament at least once with Burns around. Tennessee taught him to grow up. Winthrop is where he learned to stop doubting himself. NC State is where he knew for sure he had a future in basketball and his life felt the most fulfilled.

Now he'll sit and wait to see if his name gets called Thursday during the second round. It's a weird draft. This year, the unexpected is expected. There are about 50 guys like DJ Burns who are waiting and hoping to see if they get called in the final 15 spots. Even if Burns doesn't hear his name called, he'll almost certainly have his chance at Summer League glory. From there, who knows? Given his track record of winning and his undeniable impact on the floor, it would be no surprise to find Burns thriving in his next chapter, no matter where it is or how he wins his way there.