Washington Mystics snap losing streak behind Stella-r play from newcomers

Stella Johnson leads trio of new additions

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Washington Mystics guard Stella Johnson dribbles the ball at a recent practice. Photo credit: NBA Content Network

Washington Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen’s assessment of her team’s 98-91 win over the Atlanta Dream was simple: “It looked like great Mystic basketball.”

That it did, with five players scoring in double figures and a sixth adding nine points, the team shooting 50% from the field and hitting 12 3-pointers, and the team dishing out 27 assists. It was even more impressive considering that three of the nine players who saw the court on Wednesday had been Mystics for a week or less.

Stella Johnson was the first of that trio to sign with the Mystics, originally joining the team on August 13 on an emergency hardship exception to help the team cope with a rash of injuries. On Tuesday, her contract was converted to a rest-of-season contract, and on Wednesday, she made her first professional start in just her seventh career game.

“[Mystics head coach Mike Thibault] said it matter-of-factly, so I was just in the back of the room with my eyes wide, like, I’m starting,” Johnson recounted. “… I couldn't believe it. … a lot of things [were] going through my mind.”

All Johnson did with her opportunity was score 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including six 3-pointers; record three rebounds and three assists; take a charge; and add one steal in a brilliant 31 minutes. Atlanta head coach Nicki Collen called Johnson “the difference in the game” and admitted that Johnson got the better of her matchup against crafty veteran Courtney Williams to start the second half.

Johnson scored from inside and out, making two layups to complement her outside shooting and making all three of her free throw attempts. She airballed her first shot just a minute and a half into the game but got her first points on a 3-pointer with 5:26 left in the second quarter. That sparked a 12-4 Mystics run over the next 2:12 in which Johnson scored every Mystics point and gave her team a lead it would never relinquish.

Stella Johnson’s shot chart against Atlanta on August 19, 2020. Credit: WNBA Shot Charts.

Johnson credited her teammates and coaches for encouraging her to be aggressive and continue to shoot, even when her shots aren’t falling. “I was in my head for a little bit there and my teammates were like, ‘Just shoot.’ … So I just came with that mentality [that] 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 that I'm here to play.”

“I’m really happy for players like that,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said postgame, referencing how Johnson is on her third team this season after being cut by Phoenix and Chicago. “… Walking into the locker room afterwards, I said, ‘It's really nice to have a rookie player who's not afraid of the game.’ She might have been nervous, but she's not afraid. I think that's a big thing.”

After the Mystics’ previous game, in which Johnson scored a then-career-high seven points, Thibault praised Johnson for her “great instincts for the game.” Those instincts were on display multiple times on Wednesday night, but two plays stood out. In the first half, Johnson got the ball in a baseline corner with the shot clock winding down. Rather than force a 3-pointer, she drove baseline, got to the lane, and tried a reverse layup. It didn’t fall, but her attacking mindset and multifaceted scoring abilities were evident.

The second play happened in the second half, when Atlanta tried to counter Johnson’s scoring bonanza by double-teaming her near the baseline, about 15 feet from the basket. She stayed calm and threw a perfect pass over her head to a cutting Emma Meesseman—yes, WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, the usual recipient of double-teams—for the layup.

Thibault said that Johnson’s play elevated the whole team and helped the Mystics play like they did in 2019, when all five starters were consistent scoring threats.

“I think it gives the rest of your team confidence when you've been struggling … to have a player come in like that and get on a roll,” he explained. “It takes a little bit of pressure off everybody else … and it kind of stuns the other team.”

Indeed, Hines-Allen scored 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting (and showed off a new hairdo), while Meesseman had a double-double with 12 points and 10 assists. Ariel Atkins added 13 points and Leilani Mitchell scored 12, including a 3-pointer seconds into the game. As a result, the Mystics snapped a seven-game losing streak in which they were outscored by over 10 points per game and shot just 39% from the field.

Washington Mystics point guard Sug Sutton takes questions from the media after Wednesday’s shootaround. Photo credit: NBA Content Network

Johnson was not the only newcomer who jumpstarted the Mystics, though: rookie point guard Sug Sutton, who was signed on August 17 and only cleared quarantine in time for Wednesday’s shootaround, scored four points and added an assist and a drawn charge in her WNBA debut. Jacki Gemelos, a 31-year-old who has endured five ACL injuries and is trying to establish herself in the WNBA, also signed with the Mystics on Wednesday and debuted the same night. She missed all five of her shots but memorably hustled to rebound her second miss, throwing it off of an Atlanta defender as she fell out of bounds to earn the Mystics another possession.

“All we've had is a shootaround with [everybody],” Thibault said after the game. “We just gave them about three or four plays to run. Jacki didn't shoot the ball real well tonight, but I think she will as we go along. It's a new team; [she’s] trying to get used to it. I thought Sug gave us a good lift. She ran pick-and-rolls and penetrated and found teammates. She made an open shot herself and a couple free throws. So I think, for a first game, they'll only get better.”

Washington Mystics guard Jacki Gemelos drives to the basket against the Atlanta Dream on August 19, 2020. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via GettyImages

Washington’s roster looks very different than just a week ago with the trio of newcomers and the departures of Essence Carson and Shey Peddy, both of whom were cut by the Mystics. (Peddy was cut for salary cap purposes and Thibault expected her to re-sign with the team, but she instead chose to join the Phoenix Mercury on a seven-day contract.) Thibault made those personnel decisions to try to maximize the team’s long-term success, but they immediately paid off on Wednesday, too.

“We came out with a lot of energy,” Hines-Allen said, crediting much of that to the newcomers. “… Definitely a lot different energy [with] different players … So it was great just to, honestly, get that win today.”

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