- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005

The smallest player in the WNBA is having one of the biggest impacts.

Temeka Johnson, the Washington Mystics’ 5-foot-3 rookie point guard, has speed and can handle the ball, as attested by her league-leading 6.3 assists a game. After leading LSU to the Final Four last season, she was picked sixth overall in the draft and has started since her arrival with the Mystics.

Johnson will be in the spotlight again as Washington (3-6) tries to end a two-game losing streak tonight when Indiana (7-3) visits MCI Center. In addition to her ball-handling skills, she is averaging 10 points.

Johnson’s other assets include vision and court savvy. If a defender helps out on her, she will find the open player for an easy basket. If not, she often drives in for layups.

Minnesota coach Suzie McConnell Serio got a first-hand look when the pint-sized pass master sliced through the Lynx.

“Temeka Johnson was the difference maker on the floor tonight with her penetration,” Serio said after Johnson totaled 12 points and 10 assists in the Mystics’ 74-71 win June 3. “We adjusted and defended differently. She made great reads and found open shooters or found post players.”

That was exactly what the Mystics’ brass envisioned when they made her a first-round pick. And that’s why Washington general manager Linda Hargrove said it was easy to overlook Johnson’s lack of size.

“While it was initially a little bit of a concern, in the overall scheme of things it became fairly minor,” Hargrove said. “She is short, but she has great jumping ability, and she’s built strong. I have seen a lot of players in this league who are built strong who have been really successful. I loved her leadership, her ability to set others up, all those things. I thought she could step in and have an impact.”

But Hargrove concedes she is surprised by how quick the impact has been.

Johnson began the season in the starting lineup because Alana Beard was out with a sprained ankle. When Beard returned, Johnson stayed at the point, allowing Beard to play off-guard and forcing Coco Miller to the bench.

Johnson crafted her game in New Orleans, where she grew up with her grandmother, Jewel Johnson, and three siblings. She lists NBA point guards Jason Kidd and Steve Nash and WNBA and former Virginia star Dawn Staley as players she admires, but someone closer to home had the biggest influence. Her uncle, Keith Johnson, played at Northeast Louisiana (now Louisiana Monroe) and professionally in Venezuela and Russia.

“He’s the one who first went off to college on scholarship, and he came back and showed me drills,” she said.

At LSU, Johnson broke the SEC record for assists and is fifth on the NCAA Division I list with 945 in her four-year career. The Nancy Lieberman Award winner as the nation’s top point guard last season averaged 7.7 assists while guiding the Tigers to a 33-3 record. She also averaged 11.1 points and nearly two steals for her college career, which ended with a 68-57 loss to eventual champion Baylor in the NCAA tournament semifinals.

Then she adapted to the pros without a hitch.

“You have to be quick but not hurry, and at the same time you have to do everything at a fast pace,” said Johnson, who had a season-high 11 assists against the New York Liberty on June 1. “It kind of contrasts, but you just have to slow down and read things.”

Johnson is a quick study of her teammates’ tendencies and how best to get them the ball. If the rookie starts struggling with her shot, she knows she can make a living setting up others. And being the league’s smallest player is no big deal to her.

“My height is not a problem — it’s never been a problem,” Johnson said. “I play with my heart every night, and I never think, ‘I’m too short to do this.’”

Staff writer Jon Siegel contributed to this article.

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