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UNC basketball star Deja Kelly is forging her own legacy

(Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Deja Kelly knows what she wants and is not afraid to speak it into existence.

The University of North Carolina sophomore star has been planning out her basketball career since middle school, meticulously preparing for her collegiate campaign and eventual turn in the WNBA. For Kelly, it has never been a question of if, but rather when she will make her dreams a reality, on and off the court.

The Texas native first made waves as an emerging teenage guard out of Duncanville High School. Named to the 2020 McDonald’s All-American Team and awarded the 2020 Texas Gatorade Player of the Year, Kelly established herself as one of the best high school players in the country. With the hype came offers from a wide range of elite Division I basketball programs.

“Being a top-ten recruit comes with a lot — I had schools from all over the country recruiting me,” Kelly tells Just Women’s Sports.

“Growing up, I saw a lot of other top recruits pick a school just for their name or for what they would do for their image. With me, I was really strategic in my recruiting process, and I wanted to go to a school where I could build my own name, I could build the program up, I could set my own legacy at the school eventually and win some championships of my own, instead of going to a school that was already established.”

Courtney Banghart, who took over as head coach at UNC in 2019 after turning around Princeton’s program, played an integral role in Kelly’s decision to sign with the Tar Heels. Banghart earned Kelly’s trust during the recruiting process, telling her that together they could “be the start of something special” and bring the “program back to life.”

In her first year in Chapel Hill, Coach Banghart made good on her promise to the 5-foot-8 guard. “I came in, I had to do a lot. I had to make a real big impact from the jump,” Kelly says. “Most of the time, the ball was in my hands.”

As a freshman in 2020-21, Kelly averaged 11 points, 2.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 23 starts, embracing her role as lead facilitator and earning a spot on the ACC All-Freshman Team.

“I like to call myself a playmaker,” she says. “I am not just a scorer, I am not just a passer. I can do both.”

Now in her second season, Kelly is harnessing the lessons she learned as a first-year. Her game has improved in nearly every statistical category from her freshman to sophomore season, in part because of a shift in mentality and in part because she’s been given the green light to make plays from the one and two positions as the focal point of UNC’s offense. Through 15 games for the 14-2 Tar Heels, Kelly is averaging 17.6 points and 3.8 rebounds. In UNC’s win over ACC foe Clemson on Jan. 2, she notched a career-high 31 points on a season-high five 3-pointers, showcasing her evolution as a shooter.

“Individually, I am really looking at expanding and growing on my range, my 3-point range and my defense,” says Kelly, who’s shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc this season, up from 31 percent in 2020-21.

As a team, UNC is playing an exciting, fast-paced form of basketball, getting out in transition and beating teams on the break. Their game plan is dependent on getting defensive stops, an area where Kelly says she and her teammates have been locked in.

“If we keep learning and keep being dedicated to growing and not being content at where we are at right now, I think we can make a lot of noise once tournament time comes,” she says.

UNC’s only two losses this season have come against ranked opponents NC State and Notre Dame. Despite their record against top teams, Kelly says the team is not intimidated by marquee matchups, especially in the competitive ACC. Left off of the AP Top 25 preseason poll, the Tar Heels have gone undefeated at home and 4-2 in their conference to earn a No. 20 ranking in the latest AP poll.

As UNC gears up for a gauntlet to close out January — with games against Virginia (on Thursday), No. 18 Georgia Tech, No. 21 Duke and No. 4 NC State — Kelly is already thinking about March. Fifteen years have passed since UNC last made a Final Four run, a streak the sophomore is determined to rectify.

“That’s exactly what I came here to do, is to bring this team back to the Final Fours, Sweet 16s, Elite Eights, just to put more banners up in our gyms,” she says.

The 2021-22 season has been a watershed one for women’s basketball in a number of ways. Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has yet to affect UNC’s game schedule as dramatically as it has for other teams, Kelly and her teammates have had to balance increased isolation with typical student life.

“It’s definitely hard. You are basically locked in a bubble of just you and your teammates and your coaches,” says Kelly, adding that the team’s chemistry has helped them weather the challenges.

Another new, albeit positive, normal that Kelly and student-athletes have had to navigate is the NIL landscape. For the first time this season, college athletes have been able to profit off of their name, image and likeness, opening the door for lucrative partnerships and corporate deals.

Kelly has embraced opportunities off the court, signing with WME Sports for NIL and marketing representation in the fall of 2021. The partnership has given her the chance to bolster her personal image, a project the 20-year-old has worked on with her mom since she was a young hooper. She doesn’t just think about branding in the conventional sense, but also as a chance to show what she stands for. NIL, to her, is a key step toward “getting collegiate athletes what they deserve.”

“When people hear Deja Kelly, I just want them to just think of a really loving and caring basketball player who off the court is a beautiful woman who knows what she wants and is really goal-oriented,” Kelly says.

Inspired by Skylar Diggins-Smith, Kelly looks to the WNBA star’s career as a blueprint for her own. Having spoken with the Phoenix Mercury guard a few times, Kelly says she admires Diggins-Smith’s confidence and the fact she always “[keeps] it real.”

“She is a beautiful woman who carries herself as such, and she is a businesswoman, she’s a mom, a wife and a killer on the court,” Kelly says. “She knows what she wants, and she’s not afraid to go and get what she wants.”

Kelly already shares in her idol’s ambition and unwavering confidence, declaring with certainty that she will play in the WNBA, something she has aspired to for as long as she can remember.

“When I have my mind set on something, I won’t stop until I get it,” she says.

Before Kelly gets too preoccupied with her professional future, she remains focused on the second half of UNC’s season, and the chance to prove that she and her team are national contenders.

Clare Brennan is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.