Rookie Stella Johnson has only been a part of the Mystics for a week, but head coach Mike Thibault promoted her to the starting lineup for her third game when the team faced the Atlanta Dream on Wednesday night.
Apparently, that was just the spark Washington needed to snap a seven-game losing streak. Behind her career-high 25 points - in only her seventh game as a professional - Johnson led the defending champion Mystics to a 98-91 win.
Her previous career-high coming into the game was seven.
“It’s nice to see a young player come in, who is not afraid, who is poised,” Thibault said postgame. "I'm thrilled with the fun they had playing with each other tonight."
Johnson’s insertion to the starting group provided the energy and scoring that had been missing from the team for over two weeks. Efficient, with an 8-for-13 shooting night and a hitting six of her nine 3-point attempts (the most on the team since June 2018), she had the best scoring output for the team since the second game of the year. Her burst, which really began in the second quarter, paired with a long off break for the team, awoke a hibernating Washington offense.
During that second-quarter stretch, the 5-foot-10 guard accounted for 12 straight points for Washington. Three 3-pointers on five possessions and a driving and-one basket turned a two-point deficit to a 38-32 advantage. All of this coming after she had an airball on her first attempt of the night.
“It gives the rest of your team confidence when you’ve been struggling. Young players, our bench players haven’t shot the ball particularly well. To have a player come in like that and get on a roll, it takes a little bit of the pressure off everybody else to get excited and happy for her,” Thibault said.
Her energy was contagious. Emma Meesseman seemed to play her best game in a while, calling for the ball all night and notching her third double-double of the year with 12 points and 10 assists. Myisha Hines-Allen also had her highest point total since her breakout season opener.
“It’s good to see players step up,” Hines-Allen said. “I hope she’s comfortable around us and can just play her game… I’m just excited to continue to play with her. She seems like a great person and basketball player.”
Opening the second half, Johnson picked up right where she left off in the first. A corner three, a drive and finish through the lane, a pick and pop three off the wing. Eight more points in a two minute and 12-second span. But perhaps her best play of the night was when she didn't score. The rookie drew a double team in the corner but found a dive cutting Meesseman to the basket on a jump pass. Not only can she score, but she knows how to find her open teammates when the attention turns to her.
“I was in my head for a little bit [at the beginning of the game] and I think just my teammates were just like ‘shoot, I’m here to shoot’ and just be aggressive, so I just came with that mentality," Johnson said postgame. "If they believe in me, then obviously I should be out on this WNBA court and I had to get that through my head that I’m on a WNBA court and I’m here to play.”
Moving Johnson into the starting lineup was not out of choice, but simply because there weren’t many options. Without much bench production during the losing streak, Thibault didn’t want a second unit of only young players. Thus, Tianna Hawkins got moved to that role and Johnson got the start.
Turning to the Rider-product, who had been waived by two different teams since she was drafted in April, Thibault knew she deserved that spot. In the short time she had been with the Mystics, he and the rest of the staff like what they have seen.
“[Thibault] said it matter-of-factly so I was just in the back of the room with my eyes are wide, like ‘I’m starting’ I couldn’t believe it,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of things going through my mind at that time.” Thibault brought the rookie to the team under a medical hardship with the Mystics not having 10 active players last week. That turned into a guaranteed contract for the rest of the year and an opportunity for Johnson to prove her worth on a championship-level caliber roster for the 2021 season. A performance like Wednesday night's is definitely eye-opening and one that the organization is looking for as it evaluates who is going to be on the roster next season.
“Who knows what she can be with given a little bit of time. It’s an experiment that so far obviously has worked out,” Thibault said. “You just hope your instincts are right about somebody like this and we’ll see. It’s only a couple of games. The test of time will see.