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Stella Johnson is the WNBA Draft’s best Cinderella story

Unranked and unrecruited out of high school, she still has a great shot to play pro.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 10 MAAC Conference Women’s Tournament - Marist v Rider Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“I still think I shoot too much,” says Rider University senior Stella Johnson, who happens to have led the NCAA in scoring for most of the 2019-20 season with an average of almost 25 points per game. “Some teammates don’t like it when you take as many shots as I do, but mine believed in me. When the game’s on the line, my team’s like, ‘You have to take this shot — you have to stop passing it up.’”

Today, Johnson is likely to be selected within the first two rounds of the WNBA Draft — something the Denville, New Jersey, native couldn’t have begun to imagine when she was fangirling over UConn stars like Maya Moore and Moriah Jefferson. “I just loved watching them, but I didn’t think I was going to be able to get to that level,” Johnson says.

But she has, in the kind of Cinderella story that’s increasingly rare in the ultra-competitive WNBA. She was unranked and unrecruited coming out of high school, starting at Rider — a MAAC school that has never competed in the NCAA tournament — as primarily a defensive player. She ended her career there as the leading scorer in the country and a two-time MAAC Player of the Year via the kind of grind that inspires lunchpail-laden cliches. Her game is enviably balanced as a result: This spring, Johnson was the only active player in Division I women’s college basketball to record 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 400 assists and 300 steals.

So why wasn’t that potential obvious to anyone besides Rider coach Lynn Milligan? “It was my fault,” Johnson insists. “I blame it on myself, and not truly putting the work in until the last minute.”

Her coaches tell a different story: Johnson was athletically gifted and had actually been playing soccer longer than she had basketball (a fact she says helps her ability to beat people to the ball). “She saw the game wonderfully at a very early age, and that fueled her anticipatory skills,” says John Griff, head coach of the New Jersey Panthers, Johnson’s AAU team. “Even as a freshman, she was a couple steps ahead of other players — and she was just a ferocious competitor.”

Despite playing on a top-tier AAU team, Johnson’s talent flew under college coaches’ radar. She would sometimes get in her head after making mistakes, something she had to work through. “I don’t think I fully knew what I was capable of on the court,” she explains now. “My AAU coach kept believing in me, and I was like, ‘... Why?’ His belief really did help me.”

“She was surrounded by players who wanted to play in college, and I think all I did was encourage her and show her that she absolutely could too,” Griff adds. The summer after her junior year, something finally clicked: she was going toe-to-toe with the McDonald’s All-American on her team, and Milligan took notice.

“It’s easy to walk on the court and say, ‘Oh, she’s the best player, we’re going to recruit her’ — and you and 50 other coaches do the same thing,” Milligan says. “She was the player on that team where if you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed. She was the player that was doing all the little things: getting the steals, being in the right position on defense, scoring the big bucket, making the right pass — she was always a step ahead. For us, being a mid-major program, those are the type of versatile players that we look for.”

Her freshman year Johnson was mostly needed for her defense, starting with four seniors on a team that lost the MAAC title to a Quinnipiac team that wound up making the Sweet 16. Late in her sophomore season, especially during a four-game stretch where Johnson, who’s 5’10, was shooting anywhere from 60 to 80 percent from the floor, things started to turn.

“I was thinking maybe if I really work for it, I might get to play overseas,” she says of that point in her college career. “I didn’t think I would actually get the chance to play in the W, much less get drafted.”

“After Stella’s sophomore year, we sat down and talked about what we needed to do over the next two years to make this dream she had become a reality,” Milligan says. “For a player like Stella to get the recognition she deserved, we knew we had to win games, and she knew that.” Last season, the Rider Broncs went 19-13; this season, they went 26-4 and were in the midst of the MAAC tournament when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. If they had won, it would have been the program’s first trip to the NCAA tournament.

Throughout all of that, Johnson was completely transforming her own game according to her and Milligan’s plan. “She was in the gym before me most days,” Milligan says . “When [Lynx assistant coach] Katie Smith came in to watch her, I told her, ‘Well, we practice at 8 a.m. so she’ll be in the gym working out by 6:30 if you want to watch her.’ That’s just what she does.’”

“It’s funny: Everybody thinks you have to be an all-state player, a 1,000-point scorer, and play on this or that AAU team to be successful — and Stella’s the perfect example that you don’t,” Milligan continues. “You just have to be in the right place and put the work in. Players that want to be great can usually do it; it’s just most people don’t realize how hard that actually is.”

Johnson put in the work, gradually learning to take the shots she might not have always had the confidence to. Her game is more balanced, though, as that national scoring leader title might suggest. She idolizes Kawhi Leonard, both for his true two-way game and his alma mater: San Diego State.

“She works extremely hard, and the balance in her game — to be a ball distributor and scorer at such a high level, and have that efficiency when you’re relied on so heavily for scoring is really impressive,” says ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson. “There’s something about mid-major players. When you’re on a team where you have to do everything, you develop this versatility ... she’s had to fill in so many different roles. In what I got to watch, she can definitely play in the WNBA.”

“I think there’s a lot of people that go overlooked in high school, that go to mid-majors and prove themselves,” Johnson concludes. “It’s just like, judge the talent and don’t judge the school.” It could be a real challenge for her to make a WNBA roster, just because there are so few spots — but according to those who know her, the guard, who’s finally learned not to pass up her moment, is more than prepared for the challenge.

“I just pray to God every night that someone gives her a shot because that’s all she needs,” Milligan says. “She is the type of player that somebody’s going to have a really hard time getting rid of because she’s going to do everything they ask her to do, no questions asked, as hard as she can, every day.”