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Former women’s basketball standout Jocelyn Willoughby makes impact as WNBA rookie

Willoughby competed in her first season in the WNBA amid the pandemic and used her platform as a professional athlete to influence change

<p>Former Virginia guard Jocelyn Willoughby left Virginia as one of the most highly decorated women’s basketball players in recent program history.&nbsp;</p>

Former Virginia guard Jocelyn Willoughby left Virginia as one of the most highly decorated women’s basketball players in recent program history. 

Former Virginia guard Jocelyn Willoughby left Virginia as one of the most highly decorated women’s basketball players in recent program history. After averaging 19.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game her senior season and earning numerous honors for both athletic and academic excellence — including winning the 2019-20 Kay Yow Award and being named to the All-ACC first team — Willoughby was selected 10th overall in the WNBA draft. In her first season in the WNBA, she has already begun making a name for herself through actions both on and off the court.

After initially being drafted to the Phoenix Mercury, Willoughby was traded to the New York Liberty, a team with seven total rookies — the most in the league. This certainly presented a challenge for the Liberty, but Willoughby felt well-prepared for this unique situation, as she likens it to her experience during her senior year at Virginia. 

“The majority of the team my senior year, or fourth year, was freshmen, or first years, and so just having that perspective of what it takes to bring the better players and young players together to create a program and unit that’s competitive, I think that was definitely very helpful for me,” Willoughby said. 

Even in normal years, without the reduced number of practices and condensed schedule caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the transition to the WNBA can be a tough adjustment for rookies. However, Willoughby once again points to her time as a Cavalier as being beneficial in preparing her for the change and enabling her to face the challenges presented by being on one of the youngest teams in the league.

“I had a lot of that experience at U.Va., being in different types of games — games where you start off with a lead and then the lead slips away and you have to fight your way back, games where you’re down and you're fighting your way back,” Willoughby said. “[There were] just so many different circumstances that I found myself in, whether it was in practice or in games, [that] I think definitely prepared me.”

Willoughby was able to make a notable impact on her team, averaging 5.7 points and 2.4 rebounds in 17.4 minutes per game and earning five starts in her 22 games played. Additionally, Willoughby recorded a season-high 21 points against the Los Angeles Sparks Sept. 9 and shot a team-best 40.5 percent from three-point line during the season.

“She’s everything you really want in a teammate,” said Sabrina Ionescu, New York Liberty guard and 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick, to The Next. “She’s very supportive, always listening. Works very, very hard and is very talented on both sides of the floor, offense and defense.”

Hard work and coachability are certainly strong suits of Willoughby. She constantly works to improve her game, day in and day out.

“Anything we ask of her, she does, and even if it’s a little thing that I might have mentioned in a side conversation under my breath, it’s like the next day I see Jocelyn doing it,” Liberty Coach Walt Hopkins said to The Next.

Growth is a constant goal of Willoughby’s. With the conclusion of the 2020 WNBA season, Willoughby is setting her sights on overseas play, as she plans to play in Israel for Hapoel Petah Tikva with the aim of further developing her game during her WNBA offseason.

“I am definitely looking forward to just growing in the areas that I started to grow in the WNBA season and just expanding my game and continuing to build,” Willoughby said. “I think that’s what it’s all about — showing growth, showing improvement, because that’s what gives you an opportunity to keep playing.” 

Looking towards her next WNBA season, Willoughby has a clear focus. She hopes to be more consistent in her second year in the league and become even more of an impact player for the Liberty. As a young but talented team, New York shows plenty of potential to develop over the next few years, and Willoughby is poised to earn a role as an impact player on the team.

But the 2020 WNBA season was about more than just basketball for Willoughby. The players, coaches, sponsors and affiliates of the league have all played a part in speaking out on issues of social justice. The WNBA dedicated the season to Breonna Taylor, an EMT who was killed by police officers when they executed a no-knock warrant in her apartment in March, and partnered with the Say Her Name campaign, which aims to spread awareness about the Black women and girls who have been victims of racist police violence and provide support to their families.

This past season, Willoughby and the other WNBA players wore Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of their jerseys, not only to honor her memory, but to spread awareness about the injustice of her death. Educating and spreading awareness have been the focus of much of the WNBA’s initiatives this past season. 

Over the course of the year, through the Social Justice Council of the WNBA, players hosted virtual discussions and podcasts on social media platforms to have conversations on issues regarding race and inequality.  

Willoughby, who was voted New York’s player representative to the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, has taken to heart the importance of her role in initiating change. 

“For me, it’s been about being intentional and authentic in what I’m saying when it comes to issues of social justice,” Willoughby said. “Not that this is a new awakening for me, because I think I’ve always been inclined and invested in these issues, but it’s been more intentional in how I’m sharing information, in how I’m informing [people] and just mobilizing around what’s going on in our world right now.”

Another focus of the WNBA this past season has been on encouraging its fans to register to vote. One of the ways the league promoted this was through Unite the Vote — an initiative where nine WNBA teams, including the Liberty, provided personalized voter registration information, accessible to fans in any location, and competed to register the most new voters.

Several WNBA players have also teamed up with the NBA as ambassadors for the Hoopers Vote campaign and posted images and messages on social media encouraging fans to register to vote and providing them with information on how to do so. Willoughby has been very active on her own social media accounts, posting videos and images encouraging her followers to vote and engage in matters of social justice.

It was certainly an unusual season for the WNBA players who competed while inside a “bubble” at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Willoughby and the women of the WNBA were still able to make the most of it and leave their mark on the world.

“The experience has been really inspiring,” Willoughby said. “It's been really unique just to be in a situation where literally a whole league is committed to doing the work ... I think that level of investment’s been really inspiring and just gives hope for the future.”

What the former Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy student accomplishes off the court is of utmost importance to her, so as she sets her sights on the future, her goals extend beyond the game of basketball.

“To continue impacting the world beyond sports, giving back to the community — that’s one thing I’m really excited about,” Willoughby said.

The year 2020 has certainly had its ups and downs, but through the adversity, Willoughby has remained earnest in her commitments to basketball and social justice. Through it all, she’s made quite the impact this past season, and she hopes to continue to accomplish even greater feats in each of her endeavors.

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