A big reason undersized NC State has held its own inside? Check out DJ Funderburk.

D.J. Funderburk averages more rebounds in the ACC than he did in the Panhandle Conference last season.

Huh? You can strain a brain cell trying to reconcile that statistical anomaly by the N.C. State big man.

It doesn’t make a ton of sense, unless you realize what motivates Funderburk, who has emerged as a key part of the success for No. 21 N.C. State (15-3, 3-2 ACC).

“I’m just trying to make the most of a second chance,” Funderburk said.

So whatever coach Kevin Keatts asks the lanky 6-10, 210-pound sophomore from Cleveland to do, Funderburk tries his best to oblige.

It has been a tall order for Funderburk, one of two healthy and eligible post players on the Wolfpack roster. He will have his hands full against a rejuvenated Louisville (13-5, 4-1) team on Thursday night (8 p.m., WRAL).

The No. 23 Cardinals, under Chris Mack, are short on skill and name-brand talent but have plenty of size and play hard for their first-year coach.

A big reason for Louisville’s 83-62 win at North Carolina on Jan. 12 was the interior dominance by Steven Enoch. With Manny Bates out for the season with a shoulder injury, Ian Steere off to St. John’s (after one game) and Sacha Killeya-Jones ineligible after a transfer from Kentucky, N.C. State’s inside numbers are limited.

Funderburk has emerged as the best post option. He has a soft shooting touch, he leads the team in field-goal percentage (63.4), and he has been active on defense. He leads the team with 19 blocked shots and has also added 10 steals.

Avoiding foul trouble

He has embraced his role coming off the bench (graduate transfer forward Wyatt Walker is the only player who has started every game). Funderburk comes in and adds energy and scoring. By sitting for a few extra minutes to start the game, Funderburk also avoids another important factor.

“I don’t like him getting into early foul trouble,” Keatts said.

In league play, he has turned his game up a notch. He averages 11.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per ACC game. He had his best game in a Jan. 12 home win over Pittsburgh with 18 points and nine rebounds.

He had 11 points and six rebounds in last Saturday’s win at Notre Dame and was a standout (15 points, five rebounds in 22 minutes) in a home loss to UNC.

“He has played so great off the bench and he comes in and gives us a lift,” Keatts said.

All of this from a guy who averaged 11.5 points and 5.0 rebounds a game for the Northwest Florida Raiders last season on the junior-college level. He had more rebounds against Pitt than all but one juco opponent last season.

Motivation or injuries can be an issue on the juco level. Neither was the case, Funderburk said. He does have a plausible explanation for his relatively modest rebounding stats.

“If you actually look at the film, we were making a lot of shots,” he said.

The Raiders did make 52.6 percent of their shots and they had a lot of depth on a winning team (they went 31-3).

Funderburk’s success this season has more to do with his own assertiveness and comfort in Keatts’ system.

He played the same style at Hargrave Military Academy under former N.C. State assistant coach A.W. Hamilton in 2015-16. Funderburk was one of the top-75 recruits in the country, rated as four stars by 247 Sports, and stayed in his home state when he signed with Ohio State.

His brief tenure with the Buckeyes led to a source of coincidental confusion. Lawrence Funderburke (with an “e”) was a star big man for Ohio State in the early 1990s before he went on to a 7-year NBA career.

Different spelling, different family but you can understand why Funderburk was asked often about Funderburke.

“I’ve been getting asked that since like third grade,” Funderburk said.

Funderburk redshirted his freshman season for coach Thad Matta. When Matta was dismissed in June 2017, Chris Holtmann was hired. Holtmann suspended Funderburk and then dismissed him from the team for academic reasons.

“It was a learning lesson,” Funderburk said of his team at Ohio State. “I took a few things from it and just tried to apply it to my life now.”

Sky’s the limit

Funderburk went to Northwest Florida, in Niceville (that’s the real name of the town, Google it) to fix his grades and get his career back on track. Raiders coach Steve DeMeo said Funderburk had a great attitude and understood what he needed to do in his year at junior college.

“Some guys in his situation would transfer to another Division I school and just lose the year (of eligibility),” DeMeo said. “He knew he was an ACC-level player and why settle when things don’t go your way? To his credit, he worked really hard and had a positive attitude.”

Hamilton joined Keatts’ staff at N.C. State last season and was able sign Funderburk for this season. By going to junior college, Funderburk was able to keep three years of eligibility. Hamilton took the head coaching job at Eastern Kentucky after the 2017-18 season but Funderburk remained with the Wolfpack.

It has worked out for Funderburk and the Wolfpack. The best part is with his frame and athletic ability, it’s easy to see where he could be by the end of his college career. DeMeo has already seen the physical development of Funderburk, who is relatively thin for a post player, in a short time with N.C. State’s strength staff.

“He’s surrounded by the right people with coach Keatts and his staff at N.C. State,” DeMeo said. “He’s going to put a little more weight on and get stronger and then the sky’s the limit. He’s going to become one of the premier players in the ACC.”

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Joe Giglio has worked at The N&O since 1995 and has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005. He grew up in Ringwood, N.J. and graduated from N.C. State.
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