Could Stella Johnson help the Washington Mystics flip the switch?

The Mystics' losing streak grew to six games, but help has arrived

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Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins drives to the basket against the Los Angeles Sparks on August 13, 2020. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images

It was a sign of how far the Washington Mystics have fallen this season that, when they faced a double-digit deficit against the Los Angeles Sparks on Thursday night, ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo was nonchalant—and suggested it could be even worse for the defending champions. The Los Angeles Sparks had played well and the Mystics had played poorly, she said, yet the Mystics “[are] very attached in this game. They’re only down 13.”

Just as they did on Tuesday against Minnesota, the Mystics mounted a second-half comeback against the Sparks but ultimately came up short, losing 81-64. Ariel Atkins, the game’s high scorer with 20 points, hit a floater to cut the Sparks’ lead to eight with 2:23 to play in the third quarter, but the Sparks answered by pushing the lead to 14 at the third-quarter buzzer and 17 at the final horn.

The Mystics’ 64 points were their second-lowest output of the season and represented the third time in the past four games that they have failed to score 70 points. Much of the blame lies with the Mystics’ lack of depth and bench scoring: the Mystics’ bench contributed just 11 points on Thursday compared to 42 for the Sparks, and the Mystics have lost that battle in five of their six losses this season. (The exception was the loss to Indiana on August 9, when Tianna Hawkins scored 17 points to help the Mystics win the bench battle 25-24.)

However, Mystics general manager and head coach Mike Thibault made a move before the game to augment that depth, signing rookie guard Stella Johnson to help replace the injured Aerial Powers. Powers suffered a hamstring injury last week against New York, and Thibault said it has been slow to heal. With her recovery time estimated at 10 to 14 more days, Thibault applied to the league for an emergency hardship exception to allow him to sign Johnson until the Mystics have ten healthy players again. (Guard Kiara Leslie also missed Thursday’s game with not one but two sprained ankles, so the Mystics had only nine healthy players even with Johnson.)

Johnson signed her contract on Thursday afternoon to join her third team in as many months. She was drafted 29th overall by the Phoenix Mercury in April, cut when rosters were finalized in May, and signed by the Chicago Sky in June using another hardship exception. She played a total of six minutes in four games for Chicago, recording two rebounds and one steal.

Before Johnson’s first game in a Mystics uniform, Thibault said he wasn’t sure how much playing time she would get, particularly in her early days with the team as she learns a whole new playbook. But she played five minutes and 26 seconds against Los Angeles, scoring her first two WNBA points at the free-throw line and adding a block for good measure. Thibault and Atkins both noted postgame how active Johnson can be on defense, which is a point of emphasis for the team as they try to snap their six-game losing streak.

According to Thibault, signing Johnson was an easy choice because she was the only free-agent guard who was already in the WNBA’s “bubble” in Florida. But he and his staff also scouted her ahead of the 2020 WNBA Draft and were familiar with what she brings to the court. Johnson graduated from Rider as the program’s all-time leading scorer, first-ever All-American, and first-ever WNBA Draft pick. She led all of Division I in scoring last season with 24.8 points per game on 47% shooting from the field, and she played one of the largest roles in her team’s offense of any player in the country. Nearly 60% of Rider’s possessions ended with her shooting, getting to the free throw line, registering the assist, or turning the ball over.

Johnson also displayed a well-rounded game that Rider head coach Lynn Milligan compared to NBA star Kawhi Leonard, graduating with over 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 400 assists, and 300 steals in her career. ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson told SB Nation’s Natalie Weiner last spring, “[Johnson] 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. … In what I got to watch, she can definitely play in the WNBA.”

Rider’s Stella Johnson shoots against Niagara in a MAAC Tournament game on March 11, 2020. Photo credit: Mark Mohrman

The 5’10 Johnson can play point guard or shooting guard, which makes her especially valuable on a shorthanded Mystics team. The endless array of offensive moves she displayed in college could also be a boon to a team that has struggled mightily to score during its losing streak.

“The first thing [we need to fix] is not shoot about 25 shots short on the front rim,” Thibault said before Thursday’s game. “We've had some pretty good looks in our games. I think [we’ve] got to make open shots … We need guard scoring.”

Thibault also noted that the team has been settling for too many mid-range jump shots instead of attacking the rim and getting open 3-pointers. Johnson proved she could both get in the paint and shoot from distance in college, scoring nearly 25% of her points as a senior from the free throw line and another 20% from behind the arc.

However, Johnson passed up an open 3-pointer in her first game in a Mystics uniform, which got her an admonishment from her new coach. “I did tell her at one of our timeouts that you don't get to pass up open three-point shots,” Thibault said postgame. “… But it's really hard: you walk in, you sign a contract in the middle of the afternoon, [you] put on a new uniform, and you show up and play.” (Asked how the Mystics had a uniform ready on such short notice, Thibault smiled and said simply, “We bring extra ones with us.”)

Perhaps Johnson’s minutes will go up from here and she will chip in a few points, active defense, and a smattering of other stats each game. Or maybe she won’t play at all, if the Mystics fix what ails them and find themselves in more close games. Either way, she brings new energy to a team whose last win was in the month of July and could sorely use a boost.

Although Thibault said that Johnson will only be with the team while Powers recovers, that’s more than enough time for Johnson to leave an impression. Perhaps the Mystics will even make a prophet out of Milligan, who said last spring, “[Johnson] 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.”