There was no warning, no phone call, no Woj bomb on Twitter. Her name just appeared on the screen -- Stella Johnson, Rider University -- and that’s how Johnson found out Friday that she had been drafted by the WNBA, 29th overall, Phoenix Mercury.
“Pretty amazing experience,’’ Johnson said Monday over the phone. “To see the smile on my parents’ faces. To put Rider on the map.”
Johnson already had put her school in impressive company. The 5-foot-10 guard from Denville, N.J., was the leading scorer in Division I basketball this past season, 24.8 points a game. She also finished the season as the only active Division I player with 2,000 career points, 700 career rebounds, 400 career assists, and 300 career steals.
“It’s a big story, Stella’s story,’’ said Rider coach Lynn Milligan. “I try to dispel the myth -- she’s not the leading scorer because the ball was always in her hands. She’s probably the best teammate you can imagine. She’s just very efficient. She didn’t need 30 shots to get 30 points."
Milligan, a former Drexel and St. Joseph’s assistant, 13 seasons into being Rider’s head coach, would make those kinds of points to the WNBA coaches who came by or called.
“I’ve told a lot of them, once you get her into camp, you’ll see,’’ Milligan said. “She’s going to be in shape, she’s going to be smart, she’s going to do everything you want, no questions asked. She’s that person.”
It’s always a cool story when a mid-major school produces this kind of talent. Consider that the players taken right after Johnson were from UCLA, Duke, and Florida State. Rider, by definition, isn’t supposed to be in that company. Except the next level doesn’t care where you came from.
Johnson isn’t the only one who defied the odds. James Madison’s Kamiah Smalls, Neumann Goretti High graduate, went one pick ahead of Johnson. Princeton’s Bella Alarie, just up the road from Rider, defied the most odds, going fifth overall. Holy Cross also heard its name called in the third round.
Johnson’s selection might take you back to 2008, when Rider’s Jason Thompson went even higher, 12th overall. Look at it like this: If you line up all the schools over the last 15 years that had top-30 selections by both the NBA and WNBA, is there a more surprising entry than Rider University?
“For sure,’’ Thompson said over the phone Monday when asked if he always kept a chip on his shoulder, being from Rider. “You just kept working. It was the chip on your shoulder.”
Still playing overseas, this past season in Spain, Thompson spent eight seasons in the NBA, starting 412 games, averaging double-digit points in three seasons. He’d use Rider’s practice gym in his offseason, see this women’s player Stella in there.
“Always in the gym, a gym rat,’’ Thompson said of Johnson. “That’s coming off winning [MAAC] player of the year in her junior year.”
“She’s probably the most understated superstar,’’ Milligan said, noting that Johnson hadn’t scored 1,000 career points in high school at Morris Catholic, or played on the highest-powered AAU teams. Rider was her only Division I offer.
“But when we were in the gym, when the big plays were being made, it always seemed to [be] her,’’ Milligan said, going back to recruiting Johnson. “She always was like a step ahead of everything going on. You can’t coach the instincts she has.”
As a freshman, Johnson showed defensive abilities that blended perfectly with the seniors already leading the team. Sophomore year, the second half of it, “maybe even the last third,’’ Milligan said, “she turned a corner and became our go-to player.”
After that season, Milligan said, Johnson shared a dream with her about playing in the WNBA. They talked through all the facets that would go into that. Individual goals could coincide with team goals.
“We had to win as a program for her to have a chance,’’ Milligan said.
At first, the conversation was about getting invited to a camp. Then the draft became a realistic possibility. Now, it’ll be making a team. Not easy to grab a roster spot, with only 12 WNBA teams. Johnson has looked at the Phoenix roster, knows it isn’t just superstars Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi. She’ll have to beat out a veteran guard or two to get a spot.
Right now, she’s like everyone else, no specific plans since it’s not possible to have them. She had a French class by Zoom on Monday morning, then did the best makeshift workout she could, having to treat the wind as another adversary.
“It’s annoying sometimes,’’ Johnson said. “The ball just goes its own way outside. … I don’t have the heaviest weights. You use what you have at home.”
There’s a window bench.
“Use it for squats and step-ups,’’ Johnson said. “I never really thought I’d use it for anything but sitting.”