By the middle of the third and final round in the WNBA draft on April 15, Ciera Johnson had mostly given up on being selected.
Then came what she calls a “complete surprise” when the Phoenix Mercury made her the 32nd pick overall out of 36, bringing the former Texas A&M center to training camp with her childhood idol Brittney Griner.
“I was getting a little nervous when we got to about (No.) 30,” Johnson said. “I don’t think my name is going to get called. My TV was actually behind (due to streaming) so my teammate said you just got drafted to Phoenix, then my name popped up.
“It was a sigh of relief. I thought I’m going to be in training camp with Diana (Taurasi) and Brittney and Skylar (Diggins-Smith), Brianna Turner, Kia Vaughn. I was just thinking I’m going to learn a whole lot.”
The Mercury open training camp on Sunday with perhaps the biggest question being whether one of five posts brought in for preseason can fight her way onto what will be a final 11-player roster due to salary cap limitations.
The 6-4 Johnson is in that group along with 6-2 Sara Blicavs, 6-2 Cierra Burdick, 6-5 Akela Maize and 6-3 Avery Warley-Talbert. Burdick and Warley-Talbert have WNBA experience, the latter playing for the Mercury in 2012. Blicavs is on the Australian National team, coached by the Mercury’s Sandy Brondello.
Centers Griner and Vaughn and power forward Turner are roster locks and the Mercury still seem committed to third-year forward Alanna Smith. But does keeping a fifth post player outweigh keeping seven perimeter players?
For Johnson, her first dip into pro basketball is more about finding out if she belongs, especially when 6-9 Griner reports to camp coming off her fourth EuroLeague title with her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg.
“As a kid, I was a fan of Baylor when Brittney Griner was there,” Johnson said. “She’s talented, physical. Honestly I don’t know what to say. It’s just exciting to be in the presence of greatness.”
Johnson, from Duncanville, Texas, began her college career at Louisville in 2016-17 then transferred to Texas A&M after one season. After redshirting, she started all 92 games she played for the Aggies, averaging 11.6 points and 7.6 rebounds with 92 blocks.
This season, Texas A&M went 25-3, losing in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 to eventual runner-up Arizona, 74-59.
“It definitely hurt, but I couldn’t be too upset because they wanted it more than us,” Johnson said. “They played harder than us coming out in the second half. We just came our lackadaisical. All you’ve got to do is say kudos and move on. We felt we fell short, but Arizona proved they were supposed to be there so all I can say is much respect.”
Texas A&M had two other draft picks — guard Aaliyah Wilson in the first round (Seattle, traded to Indiana) and forward N’dea Jones in the second round (Seattle) — for a school-record three overall.
“I’m so happy for my teammates,” Johnson said. “We’re going to give it our all. We’re getting a chance, that’s all we need. I’m so confident in us.”
Said Mercury General Manager Jim Pitman: “We look forward to seeing what she can do in our training camp.” He was “pleasantly surprised” that Johnson was available at No. 32 to be Phoenix’s lone draft pick.
“She had a really strong year,” Brondello said. “I’ve heard so many great things about her leadership.”
Johnson has a sense of what the Mercury want from her, specifically to be physical and successful on the boards.
“My rebounding fell off a little bit my last two years,” she said. “I felt like I depended on N’dea a little too much. I wasn’t the same on the offensive boards so that’s something I’m going to look to change in training camp.
“Just trying to be more active and bring something else to the table they don’t have. I hope I don’t go in there too star-struck. I don’t have anything to lose so just show them what you can do and hope and pray for the best.”
Mercury training camp roster
- Sara Blicavs, 6-2 F
- Cierra Burdick, 6-2 F
- Sophie Cunningham, 6-1 G
- Skylar Diggins-Smith, 5-9 G
- Brittney Griner, 6-9 C
- Bria Hartley, 5-9 G
- Ciera Johnson, 6-4 C
- Akela Maize, 6-5 C
- Tiana Mangakahia, 5-6 G
- Kia Nurse, 6-0 G
- Shey Peddy, 5-7 G
- Alanna Smith, 6-4 F
- Diana Taurasi, 6-0 G
- Brianna Turner, 6-3 F
- Kia Vaughn, 6-4 C
- Megan Walker, 6-1 F
- Avery Warley-Talbert, 6-3 C
- Marta Xargay, 5-11 G
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