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Scoring leader Johnson eyeing strong finish, WNBA dreams

Stella Johnson is what Rider coach Lynn Milligan calls "a complete player." Photo courtesy of Rider Athletics.
Stella Johnson is what Rider coach Lynn Milligan calls "a complete player." Photo courtesy of Rider Athletics.
Stella Johnson is what Rider coach Lynn Milligan calls “a complete player.” Photo courtesy of Rider Athletics.

Though this college basketball season has seen a tornado of standings and rankings changes, Stella Johnson is one exceptional constant.

The Rider senior guard has been the Division I scoring leader since the 17th day of 2019-2020 play, and currently averages 25 points per game – two more than the runner up. She has 526 points on 46 percent field goal shooting in guiding the Broncs to a 17-4 record.

But Johnson is an atypical standout. She is an all-category stat stacker, but just cares about winning; she didn’t realize she loved the game until she got to college; and ironically, she had to learn how to be an offensive threat.

“She doesn’t like to talk about herself – her number one priority is to win,” coach Lynn Milligan said. “All that’s happening is a byproduct of how she works. She’s grown as a person and a great leader. She’s a full package and a great student.”

Johnson also has ambitions to play in the WNBA, and overseas. How she and Rider finish the season will help pave the way.

At Morris Catholic High School in nearby Denville, NJ, Johnson played both basketball and soccer, and excelled at both. On the hoops side, she won multiple honors her senior year as she led her team to a fourth straight county tournament title with a 24-3 record.

Milligan loved what she saw whenever she caught one of Johnson’s games.

“She was on the AAU circuit in high school – a really solid program,” Milligan said. “She’s a scorer now, but her being such a complete basketball player stood out in high school with her steals and assists. She was a step ahead of everyone on the basketball court.”

The coach also loved the fact that Johnson played two sports.

“I’m a giant fan of multi-sport athletes,” Milligan said. “We’ve played two here at Rider, and the best players are the ones who don’t’get worn out because they don’t use the same muscles in training all the time.”

When it came time for Johnson to choose a sport to play in college, it was strictly a business decision.

“(Getting a collegiate scholarship for) soccer is more complicated,” Johnson said. “Rider saw me play and they really liked me, so going into my senior year I committed to them.”

Johnson arrived as a much different player than she is now.

“Stella came here as a defensive player, and I had to teach her how to shoot as a freshman,” Milligan said. “In her freshman year she was lockdown on steals and assists, and scored whenever she felt like it.”

The rookie set a program record for single-game steals with eight in the first week of the season, and went on to reset the Bronc season steals mark. In starting all but one game, Johnson had 14 double-doubles and was named to the MAAC All-Rookie team.

It was around that time that she decided she loved basketball.

“Honestly, it was probably later on when I got to Rider,” she said. “I played soccer for so long that I didn’t know what sport I wanted to do. I didn’t generate much interest from colleges for basketball.”

“At the end of my freshman year, people were saying I was good, and I actually believed them.”

As a sophomore Johnson led the Broncs in scoring at 16 points per game, and scored 20 or more seven times, including a career-high 29. At the end of the year, coach and player had a meeting.

“Every year she’s added a piece to her game, and after her sophomore year we talked and she said, ‘I have really big dreams – I want to play in the WNBA,'” Milligan said. “I told her, ‘OK, I need to know that, so this is what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to win.’ And she could care less about all these stats – she just wants to win.”

Johnson continued to work on her game, and Milligan began networking. The next season Johnson led the MAAC in both points (18.8) and steals (2.53) per game, was the league player of the year, crossed the 1,000-point mark of her college career, and notched a triple-double. She attributes her growth to the influence of her coaches.

“Their belief in me helped me,” she said. “Once I saw they had confidence in me, I thought, ‘let me do something (more) on the court.'”

Confidence in herself, in turn, created a hunger to improve more.

“It did surprise me that I was able to do that well,” Johnson said. “Knowing you can score this much makes you feel like you want to keep going.”

She stayed almost the entire summer at Rider to work on her game, which impressed her coach.

“She’s in the gym every single day, and she’s very disciplined in her schedule and how she goes about her daily routine,” Milligan said. “We’ll have an 8 a.m. practice, and she’ll be there from 6:30-7 to put in more work.”

“It’s the cloth she’s cut from. She’s impassioned and incredibly determined. She wants to be great.”

Stella Johnson has made improvements in her game each year at Rider, and has been the Division I scoring leader for the majority of her senior season. Photo courtesy of Rider Athletics.

Johnson’s doggedness has paid off in her final year for the Broncs. Besides upping her scoring average, she grabs 7.6 rebounds, dishes 3.29 assists and steals the ball 2.71 times on average. She nails 82 percent of her free throws, and Milligan says she makes the most out of her 36-plus minutes per game.

“She’s so efficient,” Milligan said.”She leads the country in scoring free throws attempted and made, she’s at the top of the conference in steals and she’s the DI scoring leader. She doesn’t need 25 shots to score 25 points. She’s not a volume shooter.”

WNBA coaches have taken Milligan up on her invitation to check Johnson out at practices and games. She’s hoping they see what she sees.

“She’s built like Maya Moore, with a naturally-gifted, strong, athletic body,” Milligan said. “She has great instincts.”

“I believe she deserves to be drafted. She’s one of the best 36 in the country.”

If she isn’t playing on a WNBA team this summer, Johnson will play overseas. She said her strengths lie in a more old-school and calm approach to the game.

“I like being physical,” she said. “Nowadays people aren’t as physical as much as they were in the past, but I’m not afraid of contact. I like knowing people and reading their next move. I like to attack the rim.”

“I just try to win the game. I don’t look for scoring. If it comes to me, it comes to me.”

She said she is pleased with the way she has grown at Rider.

“Becoming a leader helped me in the way that I handle things,” she said. “If something makes me mad, I know how to control that more. As a ball handler and a shooter, I didn’t shoot it as a freshman, and my game took a huge step from that.”

Johnson’s goals for the season are to win the league title and get to the NCAA Tournament. But she also wants to leave a good impression.

“I want people to know I grew as a player, and that I didn’t keep the same moves,” Johnson said. “I want people to know I have evolved as a player.”

Milligan, in the meantime, is still trying to provide her athlete an assist to a pro career.

She is the most humble superstar,” Milligan said. “She set that goal for herself, so I said. ‘let’s see if we can make that tangible.'”

 

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