By Dylan Manfre
It is hard to believe that there was a point in time when Stella Johnson did not believe she would be a Division I basketball player. She was scared of the recruiting process because of all the anxiety it brings.
“I think Rider found me. I didn’t even know Rider was in New Jersey when they first contacted me,” she said. “I visited, and I didn’t want to visit, because I was scared of the process of it all. I didn’t like talking to coaches. I think Coach [Lynn] Milligan really convinced me that we’re like a family here… When I came for my official visit everybody was close and fooling around but also serious about basketball.”
When Milligan recruited Johnson mainly from her time with the New Jersey Panthers of the Amature Athletic Union (AAU) circuit, one of the top teams in New Jersey. She described the prospective guard as a “piece” on a good Panthers team.
Rider went 8-22 overall in 2015-2016. The Broncs had been a staple to the bottom section of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) standings for some time, but when Johnson came along, Milligan described her as “the missing piece,” Rider needed.
“When she came here as a freshman she was a piece, she played with four seniors, on a really good team. And she was kind of that missing piece, really, to that team and I think the confidence she gained freshman year playing with those older kids and the success we had as a program her freshman year I think just opened things up for her.”
The Broncs finished 24-9 overall and 16-4 in conference play in 2017 with a trip to the MAAC Championship where they would eventually fall to Quinnipiac Bobcats, which began its reign as MAAC superiors with that win.
It was the first time Rider finished with a winning record since the 1994-1995 season — 22 years.
Two decades and three head coaching changes later, Rider had promise again and Johnson blossomed into the high-caliber player people have grown accustomed to watching.
She continued to score in every way possible catapulting herself into a conversation where only her name has resided for a majority of the 2019-2020 campaign: the nation’s leading scorer.
Her name has been attached to the top spot since Nov. 12 first appearing on the list when she dropped 80 points in a weekend series against North Florida and Lipscomb. She had a program single-game record of 41 against North Florida and poured in 39 against Lipscomb.
At the end of the regular season on March 7, Johnson had become Rider’s all-time leader in steals (335), career points (2,130), field goals attempted (1,670) and field goals made (776).
She also became the only active player in Division I women’s college basketball to record 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 400 assists and 300 steals.
Johnson never aims for the accolades, though. When she passed Debbie Snyder to become Rider’s all-time leading scorer, Johnson said she genuinely did not know she was even close.
“I don’t like to listen to all the record things,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know I was close. Coach doesn’t tell me anything, I told her not to say anything but I didn’t know.”
After the game when she scored 41, ESPN3 sideline reporter Chris Williams compared Johnson to an NBA player whom she admired her entire life, however, the humble Johnson feels nowhere close to his caliber.
That player is Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawahi Leonard.
The comparison is valid, though. They are both known for being two-way players and are able to score at will and drive to the basket with authority. Leonard, for a time, was the screensaver on Johnson’s phone.
“He plays both ends of the floor. He’s not just an offensive player he’s a defensive player too and I love that,” Johnson said. “And he’s just humble, he doesn’t showboat like that.”
Williams is not the first person to make the comparison. Other reporters, her parents and even Milligan believe it too and it is pretty clear to see.
“I always compare her to him,” Milligan said mid-question.
“He’s a two-way player. He’s known as the two-way player. He’s very even. You don’t see Kawahi jumping up and down and he’s very balanced … does his job. And that’s what Stella [Johnson] does. She plays both ends of the floor every single possession and does her job.”
Milligan went as far as to say that Johnson may be the Kawahi Leonard of the MAAC.
And who knows? Maybe she’ll be the Kawahi Leonard of the WNBA should she get drafted in April.
Milligan said teams such as Chicago, Washington and Atlanta, among others have reached out to scout the, who Milligan called, “the greatest player in Rider women’s basketball history.”
According to draftsite.com’s latest mock draft, Johnson is now projected to go in the second round to the Seattle Storm, which own the 19th overall pick.
“I think that’s been my goal for a long time and I think it might become real to play professionally overseas first,” Johnson said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Locked and Loaded for the MAAC Tournament
Johnson almost instantly replied that she does not want to know if anybody has contacted her because of her willingness to tune everything out and focus on the task at hand of winning a MAAC championship, which Rider has a legitimate chance of accomplishing this year.
Johnson, along with fifth-year senior guard Lexi Stover and senior center Tracey Goodman were the only current players on the roster when they made their championship run in 2016-2017, so a title would be the perfect ending to her storied career.
“It would be, like mission complete, for everything she’s done for our program,” Milligan said. “Her number one goal was never ‘oh let me be the leading scorer in the nation’ or ‘let me do this let me do that.’ It was always let me come here and win. And she’s done that since she’s been here. And for her to hand a championship banner in our gym, I know would be incredibly special for her. I know she would feel … it was all worth it.”
There is one other banner that could be raised when everything is all said and done.
The first Rider women’s basketball number to be retired.
Johnson said she chose No. 4 because it was simple and she likes single digits. She wore No. 8 as a four-year varsity soccer player in high school too.
“If I have anything to say about it, yeah,” Milligan laughed foreshadowing the near certainty of that happening. “I absolutely think it should be. There’s no women’s number obviously retired and she is going to be arguably the best women’s player to ever put on a Rider uniform.”
She even extended an offer for her to become an assistant coach should she want to pursue that route.
Johnson would follow in the footsteps of assistant coach Marritta Gillcrease, who played under Milligan for 97 games.
“I’ve told her she would be a great coach. I’ve told her that many times,” Milligan said. “And I can see her being a coach and she doesn’t believe me. She’s always like ‘No, no no.’ and I always say ‘You’ll be surprised,’ She has a great head for the game. If she wanted to come back and coach and we could do it sure. She’s one of the smartest basketball players you’ll ever see. She’s a step ahead of everybody on both ends of the court. That’s what makes her different.”
One of the things people have probably figured about Johnson is that she is a relatively quiet person.
When asked if she likes all the attention and doing interviews Johnson promptly replied “No.”
During the MAAC/Atlantic Sun Tournament when Rider played Lipscomb and North Florida, Johnson said she had four interviews in one day.
“I think it was MAAC Sports, [The Rider News], ESPN and an ESPN reporter in the morning. I thought it was cool that everyone wanted to talk but I wanted to shower, get back and go to sleep,” Johnson laughed.
Seeing her name on ESPN and in the media has been a whirlwind.
She just takes it as another day in the life of Stella Johnson.
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