The first time North Carolina guard Deja Kelly knew it was really real, that her partnership to model Sports Illustrated swimsuits for their Forever 21 collection was more than just a photoshoot and social media posts, she unassumingly walked into a store in Massachusetts with her mother.
They weren’t sure if the advertising would just be local, so they didn’t expect to see it up North. Yet there it was. The display that showed the 5-foot-8 junior modeling a swimsuit at one of her favorite clothing stores.
“Of course, my mom is extra and she’s telling people in the store, ‘Guys, this is my daughter.’ So that was her bragging moment, too, ”Kelly said. “That first time that I saw myself in the stores was really exciting. I truly just felt blessed honestly, in that moment, I was at a loss for words. ”
Kelly continues to get texts from her teammates and friends from back home in San Antonio, Texas, who have seen the display.
Women’s basketball fans should get used to seeing Kelly, whether or not they shop at Forever 21. She has a chance to become one of the faces of women’s college basketball next season.
Kelly, who led UNC in scoring last season, is one of the Heels’ four returning starters from their team that advanced to the Sweet 16 last season. Carolina is currently projected as a potential preseason top-10 team. If the Heels live up to expectations, Kelly will likely be a major reason why.
“It’s going to be a challenge because now you have all eyes on you, and I think that that’s something that I’m looking forward to at the same time,” Kelly said. “Because I want to be that face for the younger generation. I want to be one of those top faces that they see when they watch college basketball. ”
The way she’s attacked name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities, like the way she attacks slower defenders, only adds to increasing her brand. Kelly has endorsement deals with several major brands including Dunkin ‘Donuts, which is the first she ever secured, and Outback Steakhouse. She has equity in Drink Barcode as part of her deal with them.
“I’ve always carried myself as a brand; I’ve always made sure that Deja Kelly was seen as a brand on and off the court, ”she said. “So I think that has allowed a lot of these NIL deals to come into play for me.”
Kelly is represented by WME agency and her “team” there handles securing all of her deals. It’s allowed her to keep the business side separate from school and basketball and it’s how she’s been able to juggle it all without feeling overwhelmed.
Kelly said she initially began plotting on branding in high school, even though she wasn’t sure the rumblings of NIL would ever be approved while she could still benefit from it. She thought about three areas: how exactly she wanted to brand herself, what audience she wanted to reach and what values she wanted to showcase to the public.
“Everyone just sees the basketball player, everyone just sees the jerseys, the sweatpants, the hoodies and no one really sees us as people,” Kelly said. “So I think NIL really allows us to be a little more vulnerable and show that side of us and what we believe in, what we stand for. And I think that is a big deal. ”
It’s as big a deal for Kelly to also include her teammates. She took them all out to Outback for dinner after acquiring that deal. Heading into the NCAA tournament last season, she used her partnership with Beats by Dre to gift a set of personalized, Carolina blue headphones to all of her teammates and the basketball staff. For the players, the headphones included their jersey numbers and a personal note to each one.
“The basketball part of it creates a lot of these opportunities and those are my teammates, I’m hooping with them every single day,” Kelly said. “So in my head, they have a big part of my success, and I really couldn’t do any of it without them. So I just thought that they deserved a little something for me to show my gratitude. ”
The marketing doesn’t overshadow her production, though. Kelly led the Heels with 16.5 points per game last season as a sophomore and was named first team All-ACC. She topped the 20-point mark eight times, including a team-high 23 points in their 69-61 NCAA tournament loss to eventual national champion South Carolina.
As good as Kelly has been, UNC coach Courtney Banghart said she still has room to grow.
“Deja grew so much from year one to two in all ways in terms of her habits, kind of creating more elite habits as well as her output on the court and her efficiencies,” Banghart said. “She’s got to make another jump. I mean, her goals are not to be a great college player. It’s to be a great pro. ”
Kelly is targeting becoming a better facilitator after her assist-to-turnover ratio was just 1.2 last season. She also said she’s working on improving her 3-point range because she’s anticipating opponents will use defenders with more length on her next season, so getting separation and making longer shots could be key.
“My strength is a big part of my next career step, and I’m really locking in and diving into the weight room,” Kelly said. “It’s been great results so far. So I think by the end of the summer, that’ll take my game to the next level. ”