Guard Stella Johnson — the 5-foot-10 pride of Denville, New Jersey — wasn’t offered many scholarships ahead of her decision to play at Rider University.
“Stony Brook did, but then they pulled it,” recalled Johnson, the leading scorer in women’s Division I college basketball this year and the darling of WNBA draft boards. “Hartford pulled it.”
That would be 0-28 Hartford. Bet they’d like to have that one back.
In the end, only Lynn Milligan of Rider saw enough to offer Johnson a chance to grow into a two-way player who manages to score without sacrificing the rest of her game.
“It’s funny because we’re a mid-major program, and we’ve been trying to build to be where we are and what we think we can be,” Milligan said. “Stella was a big piece of that, and we didn’t take a chance on Stella. She really took a chance on us, because we were just turning that corner when she came in her freshman year.”
That chance has turned Rider from a team that won eight games the season before Johnson arrived to one that has made a pair of WNITs and has its sights set on the NCAA Tournament. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference has two competitive teams this year in Rider and Marist. Each has won on the other’s home floor. An expected third game, at the MAAC conference tournament next month in Atlantic City, New Jersey, will likely determine whether Johnson can cap her collegiate career with Rider’s first NCAA bid.
Johnson will have the biggest hand in that — not because Rider is one-dimensional but because Johnson touches every facet of the game at both ends.
“I believe that Stella is a WNBA player because of her efficiency, because of her defense,” Milligan said. “I think she’s like Kawhi Leonard — plays both ends of the court all the time. … There’s a lot of scorers that people don’t even look at. She’s not [just] a scorer. She’s a basketball player, and I think that’s what WNBA people are looking for, and that’s what she’s made herself.”
Johnson may not be just a scorer, but the scoring is impressive. She’s averaging almost 25 points a game, and she’s consistent: double figures every time, 20 or more in 18 of 24 games so far, five times north of 30 in a game. And she does it in a variety of ways.
Take a game against Marist earlier this month. Johnson got on the board with an isolation penetration into the lane, finishing over Marist’s bigs with a teardrop floater. She often plays off the ball, with sophomore Amanda Mobley handling point guard duties, which allows Johnson, freed of that responsibility, to find space all over the floor.1 In this game, she found space in the near corner for a three on one possession, then used one of her separator skills — her stepback — to sink a midrange jumper the next possession.
“We have a ball-screen offense that we run a lot,” Milligan said. “So if we can drag the defense to one side and reverse it, Stella can be the recipient of a lot of that. And if she’s using the ball screen, she can be the one setting that up. … I think what Stella does is she understands, when her teammates are trying to make a play, or her teammates are using the screen, she knows where to be to help them.”
But the help extends across her statistical profile. Her 3.7 steal percentage ranks in the top 100 in the nation. Despite her perimeter role, she’s a frequent crasher of the boards, with six double-digit rebounding performances. Those are the most dangerous possessions for Rider opponents: Johnson, making decisions in the open floor, creating or finishing off a missed shot.
And then there are these plays, these eye-popping moments that seem to change the flow of the game, combinations of athleticism and savvy that are seldom seen anywhere else. Midway through the second quarter of the game against Marist, Johnson did this:
Break that down: The star player hurtles herself into the corner of the arena. She recognizes where the ball is going first. She saves it by threading the ball between her legs — right to a teammate for a transition opportunity the other way.
“She’s going to do whatever it takes,” Milligan said. “If it means sliding on the floor and throwing the ball off her head, and doing whatever she has to do to make sure that we still have an opportunity to win, then that’s what she’s going to do.”
Lots of players have the will to win, though. It’s the way Johnson translates next-level athleticism into maximizing that will that leads WNBA front offices to send people for live looks and catch Rider’s games on the MAAC’s streaming deal with ESPN3.
Johnson’s idol, Leonard, was the 15th overall pick in the NBA draft, and a similar outcome now appears likely for Johnson this spring in the WNBA draft. And then? Milligan thinks that’s all it will take. Just get her in the door, the way it took a single scholarship offer from Rider to get her this far.
“The more people that understand why Stella is a great player, the more opportunities that she’s going to have, and I do think there are things that she does that other people don’t do,” Milligan said. “And I think she does it at a consistent level all the time. It’s not every third game, every fifth game. No, it’s every game.”