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Saturday January 22nd

'You're Deja Kelly': Sophomore guard uses her voice to lead Tar Heels' backcourt

Sophomore guard Deja Kelly (25) enters the court at Carolina Basketball Late Night on Oct. 15 at the Dean E. Smith Center.
Buy Photos Sophomore guard Deja Kelly (25) enters the court at Carolina Basketball Late Night on Oct. 15 at the Dean E. Smith Center.

Deja Kelly walked into the visitors' locker rooms at Virginia Tech in February with her team trailing by 14 at halftime. The then first-year guard sat down and talked quietly to herself. 

She recognized the stakes. This was a must-win game in order to secure a bid for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. She knew she needed to bring out her best. 

Kelly told herself to relax and stay calm, which was advice her mom, Theresa Nunn, always told her. It’s the voice she used to hear all time when she had problems on and off the basketball court. 

But this time, she was on her own. After a first season at North Carolina full of ups and downs, she was ready to end the regular season on a high note. She was ready to show the world her true identity.

She took a breath and whispered to herself three words.

"You're Deja Kelly."

'Always found a way'

Kelly’s love for basketball originated on the courts of San Antonio, Texas at the age of 5. The kindergartener didn’t immediately flash her talent while going up against much taller fifth graders, but it was enough to spark a passion for the game — and her mother was there to foster it.

Kelly spent hours in the gym with Nunn almost every day, sometimes staying from 5:00 a.m. to midnight. If she missed too many shots during practice, Nunn would have her run and scream out her personal goals. Playing for the University of Texas and becoming a McDonald's All-American were the two dreams written on the dream board she made as a child. Kelly eventually started shouting “Texas” and “McDonald's” after any shot — no matter the result. 

By fifth grade, she had already received a college offer and she committed to Texas as a seventh grader. 

About six years ago, Nunn was approached by her mentor, John Lucas II, the current player development coach of the Houston Rockets. Lucas II watched Kelly play and believed she had the potential to be a star. He advised Nunn to put her career pursuits on hold in order to help Kelly with hers. 

“I had to sacrifice a lot,” Nunn said. “And she was always very aware of that. So I think it almost made her work harder because, for both of my kids, I put whatever I wanted on hold to make sure that they had everything that they needed to be successful.”

Nunn agreed and refused several college and high school head coaching positions along the way to be by her daughter's side as an AAU coach, trainer and close confidant. 

“We didn't have the greatest living situation,” Kelly said. “But my mom always found a way and I really admire her for that because she broke her back literally to make sure me and my brother ate great food every night regardless of what we're going through.”

Nunn knew the skill Kelly had and wanted to make sure she realized it. So the two created a way to boost her confidence by simply reminding Kelly of who she is. But Deja was not her birth name – it was Jasmine. Deja was her middle name, which she had people refer to her as when she first stepped on the court. 

It wasn’t just a name change. It signified a persona change. 

“Deja Kelly is a killer,” Nunn said. “Whether it be leadership, whether it be defensively, whether it be just killing on the court, scoring and whether it be just being a great teammate. It’s an identity of what she has to offer on the court. It's basically her killer mode. I tell her to remember who you are.”

'Where she needs to be'

Kelly transferred to Duncanville High School as a junior to move to a larger school, hoping to garner more national attention for her basketball skills. She was also looking to win her first state championship.

“She was a new fish in a big lake,” Duncanville head coach LeJeanna Howard said. “Everyone was saying what she did at another school. They thought she could only do that in a small pond. And they were doubting her and her ability as well as the type of game that she played.”

When Howard got ejected during a game for arguing with an official over a hard foul, Kelly took over the huddle, looked at her teammates and said, “She had our back, let’s have her back.” Then, with her mother cheering in the audience, she took over the game and led Duncanville to a victory over one of the top teams in the country. 

Kelly went on to lead her team to a state title and fulfilled her goal of being named a McDonald's All-American. 

As for her dream of playing for Texas, she decommitted during her sophomore year before committing to UNC — the last school to recruit her — in 2019.

During her first year in Chapel Hill, she had no in-person learning due to COVID-19, was unable to practice until three weeks before the season and suffered through a midseason shooting slump.

But none of it stopped her from scoring a team-high 22 points in a comeback victory over Virginia Tech on Feb. 28.  

“I think how she handles adversity has been really good for her teammates to see,” UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said. “She stays really focused on making sure that she’s where she needs to be on game day.”

That performance was part of a five-game streak of double-digit scoring. Kelly knew her true self had finally arrived and it’s here to stay.

“The mamba princess will be loose,” Howard said. “I say with 100 percent certainty that she is going to kill.”

Kelly calls her mom around three times a day and FaceTimes her whenever she needs help with her shot. But when Kelly trots onto the court before any game this season, she'll only hear her own voice, telling her just who she is.

She's Deja Kelly.

@ryanheller23

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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