In Appreciation of Marine Johannès, the Walking Highlight Reel
The power to induce audible gasps, exclamations, and shrieks of delight: is there a cooler trait a basketball player can possess? Being good helps, sure, but making basketball fun is among the most enviable and infectious of talents. A run-of-the-mill regular season win will likely be a part of league-wide conversation for 24 hours; a dazzling highlight from the same game lives on in basketball lore.
Don’t get me wrong: Marine Johannès is an above-average, impact player on a WNBA playoff team, but it’s her ability to leave jaws on the floor that separates her from the vast majority of hoopers worldwide. Before traveling to the United States early in the 2022 regular season, the New York Liberty were a middling club, their games missing a spark, aside from the odd Sabrina Ionescu logo three. After Johannès joined the team and appeared in her first action on June 10, New York became must-watch TV.
Johannès’ shooting efficiency and her ability to freeze defenders with mind-bending passes led New York to a 12-12 regular season record with her in the lineup, a stark improvement from the 4-8 mark it posted before she arrived.
“But enough with the numbers,” shouts anyone reading this, presumably. “We want the highlights!”
Johannès uses the zestiest of flavors to season her passes and shots. Her game overflows with punch and pizzazz.
Somehow, neither of the dimes highlighted above crack Johannès’ top ten highlights of 2022, at least in this writer’s eyes. Let’s delve into the 27-year-old’s most astonishing plays of the season, and break down what exactly makes her so lethal on the offensive end.
Marine No. 10
Johannès and Dolson displayed wonderful chemistry throughout the 2022 season (I’d posit Dolson and Han Xu were the biggest beneficiaries of Johannès’ unselfishness). Here, the duo runs a pick-and-roll targeting two of the best defenders in the league: Gabby Williams and Ezi Magbegor. Generally, Magbegor is able to hold her own switching onto guards on the perimeter. Not this time. Because Dolson and Johannès enter this action using a handoff, Johannès already has a head of steam. Thus, Magbegor begins the play on her heels.
One underrated aspect of Johannès’ toolkit is her sturdy handle. As she goes right and prepares to enter the lane, watch Williams recover onto Johannès. The exact moment Johannès hits “send” on her dizzying behind-the-back crossover, both Williams and Magbegor stand directly in front of her. By the time Johannès lifts off her left leg to launch a silky jumper, Williams has done a 180, her back now facing the Liberty guard, and Magbegor has stumbled backwards, leaving enough space between herself and Johannès to lay down a blanket and hold a picnic.
Marine No. 9
This play explains itself. Look how terrified the Mystics are of Johannès. When she fires the no-look pass, three Washington defenders have formed a vortex surrounding her. Looking at an open Onyenwere spotting up behind the arc, Johannès hits Xu, unfettered rolling toward the rim.
The flashiness of the play lands it on this list, but it’s the accuracy of Johannès’ no-look attempts that truly amazes. No-look artistry toes a fine line between landing you on SportsCenter and landing you on the bench. Complete the pass and you’re a hero; throw it into the courtside seats and you’re subject to an irate coach and diminished playing time. Johannès almost always finds herself in the former category.
Marine No. 8
This type of shotmaking must be discussed in the next round of Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. It’s simply too disrespectful to be allowed. Poor Marina Mabrey never did anything to deserve this. She simply found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Movement makes Johannès unguardable. She does almost all of her damage in motion, whether it be in transition, off of dribble handoffs, in the pick-and-roll, or curling off screens. Sometimes she’ll pump-fake out of a wide-open spot-up look just to sidestep a tardy defender and get in rhythm before firing. But her one-legged three-pointers makes one question their eyesight.
This looks like a shot you’d take with the shot-clock expiring and no other options. This looks like a shot you’d take on the playground while goofing around, forcing you to spring into action and collect the ball as it caroms violently off the backboard before bouncing into someone else’s pickup game. What am I trying to say? It isn’t normal to hit this shot in the flow of an otherwise mundane half-court possession.
Marine No. 7
Watching Johannès feed Xu is like visiting the MoMA: artistry at its finest. Because Xu enjoys a height advantage over everyone else in the WNBA, there are ways to feed her unavailable to others. So often in 2022, Johannès would hit Xu on a pick-and-roll, placing the pass in a spot only Xu could reach. It’s the precision of these passes that impresses most.
This highlight doesn’t fall directly into that category, as it’s technically a bounce pass instead of a high-flying lob. But it does fall into the bucket titled, “passes only Xu can catch,” due to the 6-foot-10 center’s long arms.
As Johannès leaves her feet, Xu appears to anticipate one of Johannès’ patented one-legged floaters, because who would dare attempt a pass in such cluttered conditions? Johannès, that’s who. Xu boxes out Olivia Nelson-Ododa, preparing for the shot, but keeps her right arm extended just in case Johannès is feeling feisty. The brilliance of this play lies in Johannès’ recognition that Xu has prime position on Nelson-Ododa. Somehow, Johannès slides a bounce pass within Xu’s reach, and the center does a wonderful job snatching the ball before a helping Jasmine Walker can intercept it.
Marine No. 6
Was this the smoothest play of 2022? There’s something so mesmerizing about the one-legged three that’s difficult to put into words. Is it the rarity of it? The difficulty? Or is it the gracefulness with which it dances off the screen?
Again, Johannès is unstoppable in motion. She comes flying off a Betnijah Laney screen and into a dribble-handoff with Howard. Utilizing Johannès off the ball strikes fear into opponents, as a scrambling defense is far more vulnerable to her playmaking prowess. With defenders—such as the excellent Erica Wheeler here—trailing the play, Johannès has clear vision to deduce her best course of action.
But the execution on this shot is ludicrous. Absurd stuff.
Marine No. 5
Johannès has every type of pass in her arsenal. No-look passes. Skip passes. Clever and creative bounce passes. Cross-court passes out of pick-and-roll actions where opponents anticipate the roller being the beneficiary, only for Johannès to skip a step and hit a shooter on the opposite wing.
Perhaps my favorite of her deliveries, though, is the wrap-around. These are angles the vast majority of basketball players don’t see, or are too afraid to explore. It’s extremely effective against any sort of pick-and-roll defense where the big shows, hedges, or blitzes up the floor.
Here, the Las Vegas Aces switch a Johannès/Dolson pick-and-roll, leaving Defensive Player of the Year, A’ja Wilson, responsible for Johannès, and Jackie Young responsible for Dolson. An elite screener, Dolson sets this one with her behind, allowing her to gain a half-step on Young as she rolls to the rim. Johannès is undeterred by Wilson’s length and wraps a one-handed dart around the two-time MVP and just out of Young’s reach. Only Dolson can touch it. She gathers and finishes for two.
Marine No. 4
Did someone say buzzer beater? More one-legged magic from Johannès, who sees opportunity in a dwindling clock rather than impending doom. This highlight climbs so high up the list because of DeWanna Bonner’s strong contest. Due to her unique variety of releases, Johannès is adept at hitting shots despite solid closeouts and block attempts.
My favorite part of this highlight is Crystal Dangerfield immediately rising to her feet, hands on her head in disbelief, as the ball falls through the net. Johannès will make you question what’s possible on a basketball court.
Marine No. 3
Another example of Johannès summoning magic with an expiring clock. Johannès’ advanced dribbling abilities not only allow her to dupe defenders in the pick-and-roll, but also create much-needed separation in isolation looks.
Combining spatial intelligence with an elite handle makes for gorgeous basketball and glorious results. Here, Johannès positions herself with the understanding that Shatori Walker-Kimbrough wants to force her baseline, away from the middle of the floor. Johannès feigns as if she is happy to oblige, only to unfurl a crossover as quick as it is controlled. This gives Johannès the necessary space to step-back off her right foot and fire off her left.
Major props to Walker-Kimbrough for not walking off the court right then and there.
Marine No. 2
If I were ranking these highlights purely off level of difficulty, this would top the list. But context matters, and as you’ll soon see, the stakes were higher for what ended up at No. 1. Still, this was my favorite pass of the season by any player on any team, one I watched on a loop until my eyes turned to glass. I don’t even feel the need to break it down. The assist speaks for itself. Like … how?
Daring basketball is exhilarating, and this is bravery in its finest form. Just about every behind-the-back pass features defenders in front, and no one in the rearview. This allows the passer to utilize the empty space behind them and take opponents by surprise. But to attempt a behind-the-back pass with someone directly behind your back?!? Make it make sense! Oh, and by the way, the defender behind Johannès’ back here is Rebekah Gardner, one of the best and most disruptive defensive players in the league. Naturally, the pass hits Dolson squarely in her shooting pocket.
Major props to Dolson for paying this off. Do you know how much pressure a pass like that puts on the shooter? Miss the attempt and this once-in-a-lifetime highlight fades into oblivion. But Dolson is money from above-the-break, and played her role as a teammate to perfection.
“I knew I had to make it,” Dolson said postgame. “Because you can’t mess up a play like that.”
Marine No. 1
Momentum is an elusive concept, and one often used as a crutch in analyzing sports. It’s easy to cite momentum as a catalyst for something when, in fact, other factors are at play. But here? I’ve never seen anything like what happened above, hyperbole be damned. The fate of a big game flipped on the drop of a dime. (Get it?)
Let me set the scene. New York was in Chicago for Game 1 of its first round playoff series, and the heavily-favored Sky appeared to be marching toward a comfortable win. Then, Johannès struck. I only posited the previous highlight as more difficult because of how wide-open Howard is here, but don’t get me wrong—this is plenty tough. Sky defenders swarm the ball-handler, terrified of what Johannès will do with the rock in her hands. But surely they know better than to leave a player completely unguarded in her presence? Johannès lent new meaning to the notion of having “eyes in the back of your head” with this delightful dime.
Do I even have to point out that the pass hit Howard directly in stride?
I remember experiencing shock in the moment. What happened next elevates this play to the tippy-top of Highlight Hill. Clearly, Chicago was shocked, too, as the Sky failed to score for the remaining three-plus minutes of action. When Johannès dealt the pass to Howard, New York trailed, 91-85. When the final buzzer sounded, New York celebrated a miraculous 98-91 victory. One play spurred the first Liberty playoff win in years.
I love how Johannès seemed to be impressed with herself upon backpedaling after Howard laid the ball in. As you can see in many of the highlights above, Johannès is rather stoic on the court, maintaining a business-like demeanor while the clock is running no matter how ridiculous her previous play was. But here, down four in crunch time of the biggest WNBA game of her life, Johannès couldn’t help but crack a smile.
Johannès’ ability to stay loose when the stakes are highest perfectly personifies her game.