By R.L. Bynum
CHARLOTTE — This season feels like a new beginning for sophomore guard Deja Kelly.
There was nothing normal about her freshman season spent in a bubble with her Carolina teammates, taking classes virtually and playing in front of nearly empty arenas.
“Basically, I feel like a freshman again, honestly,” Kelly said Wednesday at ACC Tipoff. “With classes and everything like that and just experiencing Late Night and football games? Just all the activities that we didn’t get to experience last year. So I would call it like freshman year, part 2.”
On top of that, she went from a player who earned McDonald’s All-America honors in high school as a combo guard to running the show in college as a point guard. Any freshman in that situation is going to go through some rough patches and she was no different.
Third-year coach Courtney Banghart has praised Kelly’s “adversity response,” saying that she was never disengaged and just kept getting better.
The ACC All-Freshman team pick showed tremendous perseverance and resiliency playing through all those obstacles and shooting better to finish the season strongly. Kelly averaged 11 points per game last season but averaged 17.2 over the last six games.
Kelly, who scored a career-high 22 points against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, admits that the season was more challenging than she expected.
“It was,” said Kelly, who started 23 of 24 games. “And I think a lot of freshmen go through some type of challenges. And I think just the way I handled it, I’m proud of myself. I think I ended the year pretty strong and I’m looking forward to picking back up off that energy.”
Through it all, she followed the advice of her mom, Theresa Nunn, who was her coach up until high school.
“She just says be yourself, play your game; don’t let anybody change the game,” Kelly said. “I think I’ve been sticking to that and I think I’ve turned out pretty well.”
Part of her “freshman, year, part 2” will be going back to her familiar combo guard role, thanks to graduate transfer Carlie Littlefield and redshirt junior transfer Eva Hodgson getting most of the time at point guard. Add freshman point guard Kayla McPherson (who is recovering from an injury) and Kelly won’t be forced to play as much at point guard.
“We can play faster,” Banghart said. “We have multiple lead guards that can handle it, so you’re not looking for one guy. Last year, Deja had to play out of position at the point guard spot, the one position you don’t want to play out of position, and she had to play it all year, so we were slower with it. So, now the ball is going to move better east-west and the ball is going to move faster north-south.”
Kelly said that three additions at point guard, two with years of college experience, have seamlessly integrated into the team with leadership on the court and the talent to make the team better.
“It’s been great,” Kelly said. “They’ve been great new additions for us. They fit right in. They play their roles extremely well. They’ve been leaders. They are our captains this year and they’ve done really well, leading our team so far. I know that they will help lead our team to do some great things this year.”
Kelly says that although she’d always been more of a combo guard before she came to Chapel Hill, she’s happy playing both positions. For this team with experienced ball distributors, she’ll probably have better scoring opportunities this season.
“I enjoy both positions. I think I need to know both positions just with my size and for this league,” the 5–8 Kelly said. “We have some pieces like Carlie, who’s coming in to be our true point, so that will kind of put me off the ball a little bit, which is beneficial for us because we’ve been we’ve been working really well.”
The influx of talent, including the four-player, No. 2-ranked freshman class in addition to the two transfers, means Kelly isn’t likely to be pushed to play as many minutes as last season. She played more than 30 minutes in 13 games last season and at least 37 minutes in five of the last six games.
“I think we have a lot of different pieces on our team that all bring something different to the table,” Kelly said. “And we all just jell, so I think that definitely helps us because we’re very versatile. We’ll have a lot of people that can play a lot of different spots. Regardless of how many minutes I play, I’m going to be productive either way. So, I’m just prepared whether I play 30 minutes or play 35. My goal is to be productive either way.”
Last season, Kelly shot 32.9% from the floor and 30.7% from 3-point range, numbers that she worked to improve during the offseason as well as trying to expand her range. Those 3-pointers will be a little tougher this season since the arc that was 20 feet, nine inches away from the basket will now be at the international distance of 22 feet, 1¾ inches.
Kelly says that the program is poised to push its success to another level this season after earning an NCAA tournament berth last season.
“I absolutely believe so and I think that everyone right now is playing their roles extremely well,” Kelly said. “We’re all learning really well together and the energy is really great together, and just carrying over from last year from making the tournament. I think that we’re going to have a great year.”
It all starts at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 9 at home against N.C. A&T.