Kelly upgrades her ride by combining basketball talent with style to get many NIL deals

By R.L. Bynum

CHARLOTTE — Driving around in a 2014 Ford Fusion while she was a star high school player in Texas, Deja Kelly could never have imagined the ride she’d have while playing at Carolina.

After college athletes were allowed to use their name, image and likeness (NIL) to earn money in the summer of 2021, the world of college sports has changed. Kelly’s world has followed along at a pace that’s as impressive as for any women’s basketball player in the country.

Getting lots of lucrative NIL deals isn’t just about a college athlete’s game performance; there’s no better example than Kelly. 

She’s earned recognition with her top-level play as a combo guard that earned her first-team All-ACC honors as a sophomore last season, when she led Carolina in scoring and was fourth in the league (16.5 points per game).

But she prides herself on her long, green-tinted fingernails, hairstyle, long eyelashes and the flair she exudes. That, and her basketball talent, is why she now drives a 2022 white BMW X5, which has a retail price of more than $61,000.

Kelly, who was at The Westin Charlotte on Tuesday morning for ACC Tipoff, calls it her first “big girl purchase,” although her Fusion is still in the garage.

Deja Kelly says that she’s done a good job of carrying herself as a brand.

“I had a car, which I was very grateful for,” Kelly said of the Fusion. “I was very fine with the car I had, but I don’t think I could have imagined driving a BMW, a dream car of mine, in college. I definitely wouldn’t.”

She does not doubt that companies have noticed her style on and off the court, triggering numerous offers.

“I think I’ve definitely been doing a good job of carrying myself as a brand,” said Kelly, a sports broadcaster for “Sports Xtra,” UNC’s weekly student-led sports show who is majoring in broadcast journalism. 

“I’m just really emphasizing the things I care about,” she said. “I care about my hair; I care about my nails; I care about my lashes on and off the court. So I think that’s definitely opened up a lot of NIL deals for me.”

Her brand was on full display last Friday at Live Action With Carolina Basketball when she came out during player introductions wearing a tiara. 

That was inspired by Brian “B Daht” McLaughlin, the game host for men’s games, who started calling her Queen Kelly last season when she was playing so well.

“It kind of stuck,” Kelly said. “My mom has always called me a queen growing up as a kid, so I kind of always carried myself as such. So it was only right; it was very fitting. Just me really embracing that, kind of saying Queen Kelly and also knowing to keep this separate — it’s queen off the court, but on the court, I’ll give you buckets.”

Her deals have, among others, are with Dunkin’, hydration company Barcode, sportswear brand Actively Black, Beats By Dre, Outback Steakhouse, Postmates and Forever 21. She gifted Beats to all of her teammates. As part of the Forever 21 deal as a brand ambassador, she posed in a Sports Illustrated photoshoot with others on a beach in a bikini.

The sharpshooting 5–8 junior guard says that everything she’s involved with on and off the court gives her an advantage.

“It very much shows my personality on and off the course,” Kelly said. “So, carrying that onto the court, I bring that edge; I bring that competitiveness. But I think it definitely translates because I have my hair done, my nails are done and my lashes are done, and I’m still giving you buckets. We’re still winning and things like that. So I think it definitely fits together.”

Kelly said that since it was “season time,” she was locked in on the season and didn’t talk about any new deals that she’s struck, although she said some of them might be coming out.

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She suggested that there should be a deal just because of her nails. The question she gets a lot is from people wondering how she could play college basketball with long fingernails.

She doesn’t have a good answer.

“I honestly don’t know. I’ve really been getting them since eighth grade,” Kelly said of the long nails. “So, it’s kind of something I’ve just gotten used to so far. And it’s just me now. When people see me, they see nails on the court. They see my hair done, my lashes done, but I think nails are definitely my signature.”

When Carolina takes the court this season, fans will enjoy her style in addition to watching her nail a few 3-point attempts along the way.


Read about the humble beginnings of the Carolina women’s basketball programs, from coaches driving teams to games to playing and practicing in a dangerously gym, the program has come a long way. Learn interesting stories about the program in this Tar Heel Tribune story.


Photos courtesy of the ACC

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