They might be giants: Edey, Clingan and Burns a (very) Big 3 at men’s Final Four

GLENDALE, Ariz. — There’s a Japanese word for movies involving giant monsters: kaiju. Godzilla, King Kong, Mothra. You know, the kind of city-destroying mega-beasts entire armies struggle to contain. Audiences love the cartoonish carnage. And the only thing better than one kaiju is multiple kaiju, preferably fighting each other. “Godzilla x Kong” is the No. 1 movie at the box office right now.

If you like that one, you’ll love the sequel. But this new entry in the genre isn’t science fiction. These titans are all too real. The 2024 Final Four features three bracket-annihilating kaiju: Purdue’s 7-foot-4, 300-pound Zach Edey, aka “Big Maple;” Connecticut’s 7-foot-2, 280-pound Donovan Clingan, aka “Cling Kong;” and NC State’s 6-foot-9, 300-ish-pound DJ Burns Jr., aka “Beast Boy.”

“I think everybody probably needs to go out and get a big guy now,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said Thursday. “It was trending toward nobody would play with their back to the basket, (but) three guys have led their teams to the Final Four because of the way they play. All three of those guys are really good. If you ask me who keeps you up at night right now, it’s Zach Edey.”

That’s because Big Maple and Beast Boy will collide in an epic national semifinal Saturday night, where the winner’s reward could be a championship showdown with Cling Kong. It’s the stuff legends — and summer blockbusters — are made of. (Alabama’s crafty big man, Grant Nelson, is Jeff Goldblum in “Jurassic Park,” hoping to use his expertise in chaos theory to outsmart the monsters.)

Get your popcorn ready. But first, watch the previews.

Zach “Big Maple” Edey

He made peace with the gawking years ago, before he’d even started to play basketball.

“I was 6-10 in eighth grade, so probably then, when I really started getting the stares,” Edey said. “I got banned from trick-or-treating when I was in fourth grade. People got mad at me because I was too big. Well, not banned, but I would get the stink eyes. I was like 6 foot going door to door. People would be like, ‘What are you doing? You’re too old for this.’”



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If you want to get Purdue coach Matt Painter angry, suggest that Edey is just tall. You don’t win consensus national player of the year two straight seasons on size alone.

“Zach Edey is very smart, very skilled, and I don’t think people give him the credit for the basketball player he is,” said Alabama assistant Ryan Pannone, whose team lost 92-86 to the Boilermakers in December and would like another crack at Edey in Monday night’s championship game. “People just see a tall person, but he’s so much more than that.”

He’s also freakishly strong. Purdue strength coach Jason Kabo said Edey, after considerable work these last two years in the weight room, has deadlifted 550 pounds — in a modified lift that accounts for how far such a giant has to bend down. Speaking of, Kabo and Edey have worked extensively on improving his speed and mobility, and even how to hit the brakes on an 18-wheeler like him, because the laws of physics dictate that a massive object in motion is hard to stop. Hard to officiate, too. Painter understands why opposing coaches, players and fan bases get so worked up about Edey, who leads the nation in points, rebounds, field goals, free throws and free-throw attempts.

“His physical presence causes a lot of problems,” Painter said. “That’s why you see a lot of pushback with it, because there’s very few people that have that type of physical presence. I think that’s the ultimate compliment. There was a good guard at Indiana named Yogi Ferrell, and I always used to complain he was carrying the basketball. At the end of the day, I just deep down didn’t think we could guard him. That’s all it was. I always complained about him. I just finally caught myself one day and said, ‘I need to shut up. I’m losing a lot of respect with these officials because he’s not doing anything differently than anybody else, except that he’s just better than everybody else.’ I think Zach gets a lot of that.”

DJ “Beast Boy” Burns

Most times, the nickname comes from somebody else. In Burns’ case, he dubbed himself. That fits his super-sized personality — which an entire country has recently discovered thanks to NC State’s magical run. In the Wolfpack’s nine straight postseason wins, Burns has played the best basketball of his life and become the star of the show, averaging 16.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists while delivering some of the funniest one-liners of the tournament.



‘He’s like a polar bear and a ballerina’: The incomparable DJ Burns is powering NC State

He’s incredibly self-aware, rubbing his considerable belly when asked why he thinks he’s become America’s sweetheart. People love a hefty hero. And the way he moves at that size is mesmerizing. The fact that he can squat 500 pounds but also pirouette like a ballerina even has NFL scouts interested.

“I don’t think I’ve ever coached a guy like that in my life,” Keatts said. “Obviously the transfer portal is open now. My coaches are like, All right, we got to find DJ Burns. I’m like, you’re not going to find DJ Burns anywhere else. Lefty, great touch, tremendous personality. Doesn’t really catch the ball in the post, but he ends up around the basket. I don’t know that there’s ever been a guy like that before. The guards get so mad at him, because they don’t get assists, because he dribbles six times to get where he needs to be.”

Burns also relentlessly talks trash to opposing fans, right in the thick of the most important games of his career.

“He’s about as unique as you’re ever going to get,” Keatts said. “I’m glad that everybody on the national stage is getting the opportunity to meet DJ Burns.”

Purdue walk-on Sam King is getting an extra-special introduction. This week, he gets to be DJ Burns. The 6-8, 220-pound sophomore drew the assignment to mimic Burns on the scout team to help Edey and the Boilermakers prepare for the dancing bear.

“Very, very tough simulation. I did my best,” King said. “My appreciation for him has grown. I didn’t know him before the tournament. During the tournament, he gained my interest. First game I saw him play, I was honestly kind of blown away just that he could do that at his size and move as quickly as he could at his size. His spin moves to the baseline are lethal. If he gets stuck somewhere, he has two or three other moves he can go to. It was interesting to watch film on him and mimic his play style. It was kind of fun. Just to wheel and deal in the post like he does was a pretty cool assignment. Honestly, being DJ Burns is pretty cool.”

As for Big Maple vs. Beast Boy?

“Thank God I don’t gotta be a part of that one,” NC State point guard Michael O’Connell said. “They’re definitely going to be going at it, throwing their bodies around, trying to overpower each other.”

It’s a thrilling matchup for fans, but also teammates.

“In a way, I still am spectating — just a little bit closer than other people,” Purdue point guard Braden Smith said. “It’s going to be a really good battle.”

Donovan “Cling Kong” Clingan

Alabama coach Nate Oats could hardly hide his shock about — and disapproval of — Illinois’ approach to Clingan in the Elite Eight. They just kept trying to attack him at the rim, and Clingan kept turning them away. The Illini scored just four points in Clingan’s first 17 minutes of that game and missed all 19 shots they attempted when Clingan was the one contesting.

“Probably not the best plan of attack,” Oats said. “We have played against Edey, we played against (Creighton’s Ryan) Kalkbrenner, we played against Jonas Aidoo at Tennessee. We played against some real shot-blockers. We’ve had some success with them. Can you pull them away from the rim? We can play Grant Nelson at the five some, if he’s making shots. There’s other things you can do. But we certainly aren’t going to just drive the ball at him and expect to score over the top of him all night.”



Illinois is no match for ‘Cling Kong,’ as UConn climbs back to Final Four

Nelson, who at 6-10, 215 pounds is as wispy as his mustache, had the game of his Alabama career against North Carolina and its All-America big man, Armando Bacot, in the Sweet 16. The North Dakota State transfer went for 24 points, 12 boards and five blocks in that one. His craftiness beat brute force, and Alabama will try to do that again Saturday against Clingan.

edeynaelson scaled

Alabama’s Grant Nelson (No. 2) battled against Zach Edey in December and now has to go against Donovan Clingan. (Christopher Katsarov / AP)

“Keeping him out of the paint is one of our goals, to finish on smaller guys,” Nelson said. “If we play our style of basketball, we push in transition and get out ahead of those guys, I think we have a better chance of getting those open shots at the rim. How we play, I think that’ll force him to step out a little bit and open up the lane for us. Watching them play Illinois, it’s tough to finish on him. They went on a 30-0 run just because they were clogging up the paint and not allowing any easy shots.”

Clingan had 14 points, 14 boards and eight blocks in the second round against Northwestern. He had 22 points, 10 boards, five blocks and three steals in just 22 minutes against Illinois. After dealing with foot injuries twice this season, Cling Kong is finally healthy and confident and dominating the way everyone expected when he returned for a sophomore season in pursuit of a second national title.

“He makes me look better than what I am,” said UConn strength coach Gavin Roberts, who coincidentally worked for Painter at Purdue before this. “I’ve always been around 7-footers, and his mobility is just amazing. It’s awesome to watch him grow and get better and better. You could see it in spurts last year. Adama Sanogo (the 2023 Final Four MOP) would just bully all the bigs, all the time. But Donovan would really challenge him every day in practice, make things harder than what he’d see in games. That’s when I knew we really had something special.”

Hurley, never one to downplay how good he thinks his team or his players are, has adopted the Cling Kong nickname. Of all the mega-monsters in this Final Four, his might have the highest ceiling.

“He’s got the motor and the feel. He can really pass. We can move him around offensively,” Hurley said. “He’s devastating in the ball-screen game because he puts so much pressure on the rim as a roller, changes the gravity of the court that way. Obviously running the court in transition. The 3s that he creates in the driving lanes because of his presence is a game-changer. And then on the defensive end is where he’s at his best. He can get up in ball-screen defense, slow a guard’s momentum down, but still deal with the roller, which is going to be critical tomorrow.”

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(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos of DJ Burns Jr., Donovan Clingan and Zach Edey: Andy Lyons, Lance King and Elsa / Getty Images)

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