Cashing in on new opportunity after being cut twice as rookie, Stella Johnson helps Mystics snap skid

Guard Stella Johnson, who led Division I women in scoring this past season, was cut twice as a WNBA rookie but then was signed last week by defending champion Washington. On Wednesday, she made the most of that chance, scoring 25 points in a 98-91 victory over the Atlanta Dream that ended the Mystics' seven-game losing streak.

"My teammates were like, 'You're here to shoot -- just be aggressive,' " said Johnson, who averaged 24.8 points as a senior at Rider and scored 2,167 points in her college career. "If they believe in me, then I should be out on this WNBA court."

Johnson, 22, was a third-round selection (No. 29) by Phoenix in April's draft. But with the league canceling training camp and postponing the season because of the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson didn't get a chance to prove herself and was cut in May. She was then signed as a free agent by Chicago in June. She appeared in four games with the Sky but did not score and was waived on Aug. 12. The next day, the Mystics signed Johnson on a medical-hardship waiver as they dropped to nine players with an injury to Aerial Powers.

With four starters from last year's title team, including 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne, not playing this season, the Mystics, 4-7, are building more toward 2021 and are looking at some younger players -- Johnson included -- who might be a part of their future. Coach and general manager Mike Thibault has made other recent roster moves, waiving Essence Carson and Shey Peddy (both of whom signed with other teams) and picking up guards Jacki Gemelos and Sug Sutton.

Gemelos, one of the league's feel-good stories after making Connecticut's roster despite five ACL injuries earlier in her career, was waived by the Sun after appearing in six games. The rookie Sutton was originally drafted out of Texas in the third round (No. 36) in April by Washington but, like Johnson, was cut in May.

On Wednesday in Bradenton, Florida, Gemelos and Sutton both got the chance to play for the Mystics; Sutton had four points in her WNBA debut. Johnson, who had appeared in two previous games for Washington and had a combined nine points, had the kind of scoring night that she was used to in college. Johnson had an air ball on her first shot but then settled down and finished 8-of-13 from the field.

Johnson's six 3-pointers set a record for Mystics rookies, and the effort was just one off the WNBA rookie record of seven. Johnson's 25 points were two off the Mystics' rookie record of 27 by Nikki McCray in 1998. McCray actually wasn't a pro rookie then, though; she previously had played in the ABL before joining the WNBA.

Johnson's performance was enough to overshadow the Dream duo of Betnijah Laney (35 points) and Courtney Williams (30), who became just the second pair of WNBA teammates to have at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists in a game. Houston's Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson were the first in 2006.

"When you've been struggling, to have a young player come in like that and get on a roll, it takes a little of the pressure off everybody else," Thibault said of Johnson. "They get excited and happy for her.

"Stella was great tonight. It's nice to see a young player come in who was not afraid. I'm really happy for players like that. She might have been nervous, but she wasn't afraid."