Puma continues its run of creative and inventive signings by adding the rising 18-year-old rapper and LSU-bound hooper to the brand.
With over a million followers across social media, a celebrated high school basketball career behind her, and a music deal with Jay-Z‘s Roc Nation, Flau’jae Johnson added yet another achievement to her résumé this week — a shoe deal with Puma.
All before she’s even played in her first NCAA game.
“Wow, I didn’t think about it like that,” she laughed, when speaking with Boardroom. “That’s insane.”
In the five years since Puma signed WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith as its first basketball player in nearly two decades, the brand has been retooling its standing in hoops, narrowing a selective eye on landing expressive personalities with off-court style and creativity.
Johnson became a natural fit, with her appeal also extending beyond sports, into music and entertainment.
To hear all about how the Puma deal came about, what her favorite pairs are on and off the court, and how she’s making the most of the new NIL landscape, Boardroom caught up with Flau’jae Johnson for an in-depth conversation below.
Nick DePaula: What was it like going into this shoe deal process — what were you looking for in a brand partner?
FJ: Being with a brand that had the same vision as me. I feel like me and Puma, we had a unique situation. Me [growing up] as a baller, you didn’t really see Puma in basketball. Now, they’re really rising up in the culture and you can really see it with LaMelo to Mikey, to Breanna and Skylar. To be apart of that new wave is just dope to me, and I knew that our vision would align.
NDP: Were you even looking for a shoe deal going into your freshman year, or was it an entirely new option that was brought to you?
FJ: I was approached by a lot of different [brands], but it’s Puma gang now.
NDP: What do you think makes you stand out from other players in this era of NIL?
FJ: It’s just me being me. My energy. My big personality. My Big Four brand.
The music, I feel like it definitely helps, because that’s what I built my brand on in the past. Ending up as a top player in high school had something to do with that, and just building my brand as a basketball player and not just as an artist. When you mesh those two together, you get that Big Four energy, and you gotta eat that up.
NDP: When did you realize you could do both basketball and music?
FJ: I’ve been doing both since I was little. People don’t even really know, but I’ve been playing basketball since I was four-years-old. I was always hoopin’ with guys, and I was always rapping. My dad was a rapper, and that’s one of the reasons why I started. As I got older, I was like, ‘These two things are something that I love to do.’
It wasn’t until I got to high school that I was having that confliction. Probably freshman year, I was like, ‘I don’t want to rap no more. I just want to play basketball.’ Then the next week, ‘I don’t want to play basketball. I just want to rap.’
My mom was like, ‘Flau’jae, you have a talent. I’m not finna let none of these go to waste. You gon do both, and you’re gonna learn to balance.’
I did that. I’m so glad I took on that challenge and did that, and she didn’t [make] me do just one. I took on that challenge and I really learned how to be balanced and disciplined. Everything been going up since.
NDP: When the NIL laws were passed, how quickly were you looking to monetize your social pages and the following that you had built?
FJ: When I knew NIL could go into effect, I was so lit! I’m finna be a girl on campus. You feel me? That was my first, initial thoughts.
Then, I really sat back, and went, ‘Wow, I have a once in a lifetime opportunity.’ The people before me didn’t really have the opportunity to do this, so I’m like, ‘I gotta take it to the next level.’
As soon as we found out, my mom was like, ‘Oh my god. You’re basically like a professional player.’
‘Yeah mom, I know, we getting paid in college – like, what?!’
My mom used to always tell me about [being] a broke college student. My brother, he was like, ‘I’m a broke college student.’ Well, it ain’t gonna be me! I’m lit!
NIL is exciting, and it’s just another way for me to tell my story with my music and I’m able to capitalize and get paid.
NDP: How have you approached looking at potential deals and partners so far during this NIL process?
FJ: If I didn’t feel like it was real or genuine, I wasn’t even rocking with it. I’m not going to do nothing if I don’t want to do it. Or if something don’t feel like family or real genuine. I go into it, thinking, ‘Is this going to be for me? Do our visions align? And are we going to do good business, at the end of the day?’
NDP: When it comes to Puma – how’d you get familiar with the brand and start to build that relationship?
FJ: Puma out of everybody, they were very intrigued not only [by] basketball, but my music side, too. That was really important to me because some people try to box you in. Puma was like, ‘Ain’t no box. Ain’t no cage.’
I felt welcomed. That just made it special, and they’ve kept their promises.
It’s just been a beautiful partnership meeting people on their staff and sharing my creativity. They’ve been listening to me and that’s big for me. That’s how I knew they were the one.
NDP: I’m old enough to remember when Vince Carter had a Puma signature shoe, but like you said, then Puma was away from basketball for awhile. What are some of the Puma shoes you’ve liked more recently and really been drawn to?
FJ: I didn’t even know Vince Carter had a shoe. [laughs] See? I’ve always been an original type of girl – that’s just me. I’ll rock all of the originals every day.
Basketball shoes, I’m Melo down. The Stewies just dropped and I’m on those right now too. The TRC Blaze, I’m on those. I’ve got my LSU colors in the TRC Blaze that’s sick. It’s a lot of drip coming, but I’m on the Stewies right now.
NDP: Stewie is the first WNBA player to get a signature shoe in 10 years – how much was that a factor, to see that Puma was investing in women too?
FJ: That was a big factor because you’re investing in a space that’s growing, but it needed that push. I feel like Puma was the first to be behind that push. Just like they were the first to be behind a NIL athlete [by signing Mikey Williams]. Just pushing the culture forward in all different ways, that was intriguing to me.
I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, we can make something happen, and we can push boundaries.’
I’m with a brand that’s not afraid of boundaries, and I ain’t afraid, so this is definitely gonna work.
NDP: Seeing that something like that is now a possibility – have you given much thought to what your own signature shoe could look like one day?
FJ: I mean, I’m a hooper, so I think about it. Right now, I’m just blessed to be in the Puma fam. That’s enough for me right now. In the future, we gonna [see.]
NDP: How would you describe your relationship with LaMelo? I saw that you guys connected in Miami and you’ve worn his shoes a bunch.
FJ: That’s my boy. Just a good, genuine dude. You know, I meet a lot of celebrities, every single day. And they ain’t that genuine. They ain’t that cool. He even let me ride on a private jet back! I was like, ‘Ooooooh, not the private jet!’ It was my first private jet, and I was real excited about that.
Shout out to Melo.
NDP: I saw you say it was your first time on a private jet, but then I noticed it wasn’t the Puma Jet. When are you planning to set that up?
FJ: They gotta send that this way! I need all that – the big one.
NDP: Another big thing for the athletes with Puma is how much they’re involved in the design and input process. What have you already discussed with them that you’d like to see incorporated down the road?
FJ: Certain things with the shoes, they really listen. I remember I gave them some input about a shoe, and then I came back the next meeting and they said, ‘Yeah Flau’jae, remember what you told us about these?’ I was like, ‘Wow, they really listen.’
It’s really easy to work with people that want your input and they really care about the athlete and what you think about stuff. When I come in there and I say, ‘Nah, this shoe ain’t it.’ They take that and say, ‘Ok.’ They got an open mind, and that’s dope in itself.
NDP: Like you said, with NIL, you’ll already be that big person on campus. What’s it like knowing you’ll be able to have deals in place before you’ve even played your first game?
FJ: Wow, I didn’t think about it like that. That’s insane. [laughs] It’s just a testimony to all of the hard work that I’ve put in. It’s like the blessings are starting to really come in.
I work so hard, and this is just one of the perks of that. It feels good, I ain’t gonna lie. But I gotta just continue working hard. But let them know that I’m one of them ones – big shoe deal, big campus, Big Four, big LSU, you feel me – big Puma!
NDP: I saw a headline that said you could be “potentially the Highest Earning NIL athlete” – and you’re only 18 – what goes through your head when you see stuff like that?
FJ: Ain’t no pressure. That just is what it is. Pressure make diamonds, if anything. It’s just work. I’m going to keep working and it ain’t gonna stop. It ain’t like I got my Puma deal and I’m chillin. No! I’m still up at 5 AM, 6 AM, getting my reps in. It’s just gonna build on.
As long as I handle my business on and off the court and in the classroom, everything will be fine.
NDP: Since LSU is a Nike school on the court for you – how do you plan to showcase your partnership with Puma?
FJ: I made a commitment to LSU and I’m a team player. That’s that. Over here, with the Big Four energy, we gonna make it do what it do. I’m just excited to have my ideas implemented in what I want to do with Puma, on and off the court. I’m a hooper, I’m a rapper, I’m an entertainer. I’m just Big Four, so it’s a lot of things I want to do collection-wise and bringing that Puma swag.
NDP: Something I find real interesting now is that back in the day, the brands would create all of the campaigns, but it’s different now. You’re in control of everything you’re posting and creating your own content. Where did that creativity come from?
FJ: Stuff just pops up in my head and is stuff I want to do. It’s just stuff that comes to me. I’m an artist, so I’m a creative already. Something that I think is cool and will catch the eye of the people, and really get them engaged. Everybody is scrolling all day, lets get some content to these folks that’s going to make someone go, ‘Oooh. I want that shoe.’ That’s my thought process. That’s how I think when I write my rhymes. ‘What they gonna want to hear?’
And you can see the difference. Puma, they’ll be like, ‘We got ideas, but what do you want to do?’ We just go on and brainstorm and come up with what we want to do. That’s why I feel like with LaMelo, his shoes has had the success that it does.
NDP: Where do you see yourself going in the basketball lane and in the music space?
FJ: I feel like I’m starting my legacy right now. To be starting out with Puma, is amazing. I see myself being one of the biggest basketball players of all time and one of the greatest rappers of all time. That’s my goal, and nothing less than that. That’s what I want and that’s my legacy.