The first time North Carolina guard Deja Kelly learned it was really true, and her Sports Illustrated swimwear design partnership for the Forever 21 collection was more than a photoshoot and social media post, she relentlessly walked into a store in Massachusetts with her mother.
They weren’t sure if the announcement would only be local, so they didn’t expect to see it in the north. Yet it was there. The show that showed the 5-foot-8 little girl wearing a swimsuit at one of her favorite clothing stores.
“Of course, extra mom And she says to people at the store, “Guys, this is my daughter.” “That was her bragging moment, too,” Kelly said. “That first time I saw myself in the stores was really exciting. I felt really blessed honestly, in that moment, I was really confused.”
Kelly continues to receive text messages from her colleagues and friends back home in San Antonio, Texas, who have seen the show.
Women’s basketball fans should get used to seeing Kelly, whether they shop at Forever 21 or not. She has a chance of becoming one of the faces of women’s college basketball next season.
Kelly, who led the UNC in scoring last season, is one of four starters on the Heels team who advanced to the Sweet 16 last season. Carolina is currently expected to be in the top 10 potential pre-season teams. If the heels live up to expectations, Kelly is likely a major reason for it.
“It’s going to be a challenge because now you have all eyes on you, and I think that’s something I’m looking forward to at the same time,” Kelly said. “Because I want to be that face of the younger generation. I want to be one of the best faces they see when they watch college basketball.”
The way it attacks name, image, and similarity (none) chances, like the way it attacks slower defenders, only adds to its brand boost. Kelly has endorsement deals with several major brands including Dunkin’ Donuts, her first ever, and Outback Steakhouse. She has a share in Drink Barcode as part of her dealings with them.
“I have always carried myself as a brand; I have always made sure Deja Kelly is seen as a brand on and off the court.” “So I think that allowed me to play a lot of these NIL deals for me.”
Kelly represents WME and her “team” there secures all of her deals. It allowed her to keep the work side separate from school and basketball, and that way she was able to juggle it all without feeling overwhelmed.
Kelly said she initially started planning for the brand in high school, though she wasn’t sure if she would agree to whine about NIL while she could still benefit from it. She thought about three areas: how she wanted to define the brand for herself, what audience she wanted to reach, and what values she wanted to display to the audience.
“Everyone only sees the basketball player, everyone only sees T-shirts, sweatpants, T-shirts, and nobody really sees us as people,” Kelly said. “So I think NIL really allows us to be a little bit more vulnerable and show that side of us and what we believe in, what we stand for. And I think that’s a huge problem.”
It’s a big deal for Kelly to also include her teammates. I took them all to Outback for dinner after getting that deal. En route to the NCAA Championship last season, she used her partnership with Beats by Dre to present a set of custom Carolina blue headphones for all her teammates and basketball staff. For the players, the headphones included their jersey numbers and a personal note for each one.
“The basketball part creates a lot of these opportunities and these are my teammates, and I collaborate with them every day,” Kelly said. “So in my head, they have a huge part of my success, and I couldn’t do anything without them. So I thought they deserved a little something for me to show my gratitude.”
But marketing does not overshadow their production. Kelly led the Heels with 16.5 points per game last season as a sophomore and was named the first All-ACC team. She has topped the 20-point mark eight times, including a 23-point high team in a 69-61 NCAA Championship loss to eventual national champion South Carolina.
As well as Kelly has been, UNC coach Courtney Bangart said she still has room to grow.
“Deja has grown a lot from one to two years in all respects in terms of her habits, sort of creating more elite habits as well as producing her on the court and her competencies,” Bangart said. “She has to make another leap. I mean her goals are not to be a great college player. To be a great professional.”
Kelly is aiming to become a better facilitator having had an assist-to-change ratio of just 1.2 last season. She also said she is improving her 3-point range as she expects opponents to use longer defenders in her next season, so breaking up and taking longer shots may be key.
“My strength is a huge part of my next step in my career, and I really lock in the weight room and dive in,” Kelly said. “They’ve been great results so far. So I think by the end of the summer, that will take my game to the next level.”
This story was originally published June 23, 2022 5:35 a.m.