By Scott Mammoser
Despite leading Division I with 24.8 points per game, Stella Johnson of Rider University flew under many people’s radars. The Phoenix Mercury validated her legitimacy as a big-time player, taking the 5-foot-10 guard with the 29th pick in the WNBA Draft.
“It puts mid-major schools on the map,” Johnson said, “all of the players who were not at a Power Five school. I think as much as my coaches worked with me, I had a lot of people who really believed in me and helped me at all times of the day.”
Johnson became just the second player from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to be chosen in the WNBA Draft, joining Iona center Martina Weber, who the New York Liberty selected in the third round in 2007. The last player chosen in the NBA was Rider’s Jason Thompson to the Sacramento Kings, 12th overall in 2008.
With Johnson at the helm, the Broncs enjoyed a season going 26-4 and 18-2 in the MAAC. The back-to-back MAAC Player of the Year scored a high of 41 in a Nov. 22 win over Lipscomb, and the team collected victories over Penn State, Georgetown, Xavier, and LaSalle. She recorded a triple double of 15 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists on Leap Year versus Canisius, as well.
“It always speaks volumes about a player,” added Canisius assistant coach Rachelle Matthys, “when a substantial part of your team’s scout and preparation go into slowing that individual down, minimizing her impact and trying to keep her below her averages. These were recurring themes in preparation for Stella Johnson over the past couple of seasons. She is a dynamic, focused player with a stat line that speaks for itself.”
Johnson poured in a MAAC record 37 points in the Broncs’ conference tournament quarterfinal victory over Niagara. That would be her last collegiate game, with COVID-19 wiping out the conclusion of the event and the possibility of Rider’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I haven’t really processed it yet,” she said of the end of her season. “It was sad to see the season go away. It was heartbreaking, since it was my final year, but you need to move on from that and move forward.”
The next phase of her career commenced with the draft, something Johnson starting thinking could be a possibility during her junior season.
“To have that title,” she expressed to what a WNBA roster spot would mean to her. “I’m looking forward to having that name on the back of the jersey. It’s an honor to have and just to be able to compete with them. I need to improve on my turnovers. I played more of a point guard role this year, and I need to be more relaxed, coming off a pick and roll.”
Playing in Phoenix means the opportunity to play with future Hall of Famer and four-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi, as well as dominant center Brittney Griner.
“It’s surreal,” Johnson said of the experience. “It’s extra special since you get to play with the Greatest of All Time now (Taurasi). I am looking forward to seeing their work ethic. I never thought I’d be playing with Taurasi and Griner. I look forward to seeing how Taurasi leads her team and the confidence in herself. I’m pretty shy, so I will need to relax into (meeting Taurasi).”
The Mercury will now boast the NCAA scoring champion (Johnson), the WNBA’s career scoring leader (Taurasi) and last season’s WNBA leading scorer (Griner).
“I think it’s cool to have that title,” Johnson said of her claim as the nation’s leading scorer, “but I try to keep winning, improving the team and keep it going.”
For now, Johnson, who also has a sister in Atlanta, is spending the social distancing period with her parents in New Jersey, working on ball handling and shooting on her home hoop. She said she is looking forward to heading to Phoenix right away and eating out at a Mexican restaurant.
Johnson’s degree is in sports media with a minor in French, which is something she believes can assist her in playing overseas during the winters. After basketball, she said she would like to work behind the scenes in television sports production because she has wanted to be around sports her entire life.
“She is deserving of all of the accolades she takes with her to the next chapter of her career,” Matthys said. “It is exciting to see her hard work rewarded with the opportunity to compete at the highest level. All the best to Stella in her new journey!”