How former Duncanville State champion Deja Kelly became a face of the NIL era

DUNCANVILLE — Long ago, when she was just a third-grader, Deja Kelly decided that basketball wouldn’t just be for fun. She loved it, so she dedicated herself to it. She then created a vision board to guide her towards what she hoped her life as a basketball player would become.

She wanted to win a college scholarship before high school. Check.

She wanted to become All-American. Check.

She wanted to become a state champion. Today, in front of a group of kids who hope to be like her one day, she points to the rafters inside Duncanville High School’s main basketball hall. “Hello,” she said with accomplished confidence. Check.

But what about why Kelly — an all-conference first-team guard from North Carolina — is here at her alma mater this Sunday morning in August? The reason she’s even allowed to be here, with campers and trainers in Champion and Actively Black provided sports gear, and Barcode sports performance drinks in coolers, and Beats by Dre headphones as giveaway prizes to a lucky few.

Become one of the faces of the Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) era in college athletics? Kelly could not have predicted this outcome as a third grader, because until about a year ago this possible reality did not exist. And yet, just over two years into her college career, she has already accomplished it.

“To say that two years ago I wouldn’t even have been able to talk to someone like Deja, and now not only are we doing business, but we’re building businesses around it and we’re building infrastructure and let’s give back,” said Cecil White, an agent for William Morris Endeavor (WME) who represents Kelly. “It just goes to show why NIL is so much more than just giving these kids a check. It gives them the opportunity to be the companies and brands they inevitably are.

For Kelly, as with everything so far in his basketball career, this didn’t happen by accident.

More than just a basketball player

The EmPOWERment Camp with former Duncanville State Champion Deja Kelly at her alma mater in Duncanville, Texas on Sunday August 14, 2022.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

It became apparent pretty quickly that Kelly had more than a love for basketball. She was very talented, and with her dedication to her goals, there was a chance that she would achieve them one day. Playing in the WNBA eventually seemed a little less noble as she got older and better.

That’s why the vision that Kelly and her mother, Theresa Nunn, had of the star basketball player has expanded. A professional basketball career based solely on playtesting wouldn’t be the goal, Nunn said, citing an improving pay gap in professional sports, but not in an ideal place.

“We knew she would have to be a very versatile athlete,” Nunn said of Kelly, who aspires to be a sportscaster and model in addition to playing professionally. “She can’t just be a basketball player. She had to be a businesswoman. She had to be a brand, so we built that early.

Nunn said everything before college was with that goal in mind. This included how Kelly operated her social media, which has now reached almost half a million followers on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. It also helped decide which college she would eventually go to, and for a five-star rookie who averaged nearly 24 points per game as a senior state champion at Duncanville, there were plenty of options.

Everything was gearing up for Kelly to achieve that all-around athlete goal by the time she turned professional.

“We didn’t know this would happen in middle school,” Nunn said.

And how could they? The idea of ​​paying players had been just that — an idea — for more than a decade by the time Kelly graduated from high school in 2020. Battles in court had escalated, for lose traction before running out of steam.

Then, in 2021, the decision in NCAA v. Alston gave way to the NIL era. Kelly and Nunn were prepared for it.

Several agencies quickly approached Kelly to represent her. Like the college decision process, Nunn said she and her daughter took their time.

“When people see the spreadsheet I made, it’s hilarious,” Nunn said. “We assessed anything and everything you could think of to help us navigate what’s important to her.”

This helped her land NIL deals with Dunkin’ Donuts, Forever 21, Beats by Dre and many more. The process, Nunn said, was not easy, but it was seamless. That’s because she said Kelly has a “village” behind her to help with her business operations — a concept Nunn sees as a necessity for a college athlete looking to excel in the NIL space without being overwhelmed by it.

“She was strategically aggressive,” White said. “We really want to see what happens, and she certainly doesn’t want to leave anything to chance, but at the same time she understands that basketball is the engine that makes it all possible.”

That’s why White called North Carolina women’s basketball coach Courtney Banghart before he and WME officially started working with Kelly. White said it was a great conversation and the two left the phone call aligned with the long-term plan for Kelly; business would not interfere with basketball. It would be a symbiotic relationship, and a transparent relationship.

Navigate team dynamics

As with any major systemic change, college coaches had inherent fears about the repercussions of NIL. For some, it could be a distraction from the game. For some teams, seeing a difference in value for one player over another can lead to dysfunction. Team chemistry and culture — clichés, but real and treasured pillars — could be in jeopardy.

Kelly eased any concerns Banghart might have had immediately.

“She handled it in such a wonderful way,” Banghart said of Kelly, who averaged more than 16 points per game last season and led the Tar Heels to the Sweet 16. “But it’s part of what makes her so marketable. She’s a really relatable, grounded human being. For her, she recognizes that it might be awkward, and her teammates recognize that it might be a challenge and a distraction, but they don’t allow it not.

Duncanville guard Deja Kelly #25 celebrates with the rest of the team in a 6A final on...
Duncanville guard Deja Kelly #25 celebrates with the rest of the squad during a 6A final Saturday, March 7, 2020 at the Alamodome.(Ron Cortes)

Take an early night this summer, for example. As a thank you for this season, Kelly decided to invite her teammates to dinner at Outback Steakhouse. She has a NIL agreement with the restaurant chain. Later that evening, she surprised her teammates with another NIL perk she could muster: new Beats by Dre headphones as a gift. She also gave them to her coaches later.

“I owe them a lot,” Kelly said. “Because I think they’ve been a big part of my personal success, so I wanted to include them as much as possible and show them that I appreciate them.”

This has been a central part of Kelly’s NIL journey thus far. At his EmPOWERment Camp on Sunday, reminders of his NIL offerings were seen everywhere. She said it was surreal to see everything fall into place.

But if these agreements have materialized, it is not without his vision and that of his team who have guided them.

In terms of NIL, the vision has also changed for Kelly. Without divulging details, White said that Kelly is one of the highest-grossing NIL athletes represented by WME, but they also focused on securing longer-term contracts for Kelly, rather than endorsements from calendar. She has an equity agreement with Barcode, for example.

“I think it creates generational wealth,” Kelly said. “I think that’s the main thing we focus on with NIL.”

During her camp on Sunday, Kelly had a moment to grab the microphone and speak directly to the college basketball players in attendance. She started talking about her love for basketball, but the conference quickly turned. It became a presentation on how these girls could possibly get to where Kelly is now.

“As long as you work hard to achieve your dreams and achieve your goals, you can achieve them,” Kelly said. “I hope you all learned something from me today.”

If that meant seeing firsthand how to become one of the faces of NIL? Check.

On Twitter: @JoeJHoyt


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