When athletes compete at an elite level, there’s a school of thought that often aligns with the phrase “become comfortable with being uncomfortable”.
As the world came to a standstill in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, sports were forced to pivot in unprecedented ways. And for athletes such as New York Liberty wing Jocelyn Willoughby, who began her career as a professional basketball player at the beginning of the pandemic, it was a moment that pushed her out of her comfort zone as an athlete and conversation starter in the WNBA.
The growth period of becoming a better athlete in an ever-changing environment can be difficult, especially when circumstances shift without much guidance about what’s to come in the future. On top of that, the uncertainty can make it hard to focus on a bigger, long-term picture while learning from mistakes that ultimately contribute to building upon an overarching goal. Achieving one’s goals in times like these can be challenging, but not impossible. And it can all be done while operating at a high level. Just ask the second-year Liberty veteran.
Jocelyn’s impact was quickly felt after being drafted by the Liberty in 2020, as she had a memorable rookie season in the bubble, or ‘Wubble’ that was based in Bradenton, Florida. While she made her presence known on the floor with her unique scoring ability, she also found a voice in helping to educate community members through her virtual book club Read What You Sow.
Jocelyn’s work on the basketball court has earned her a rack of achievements at a wide range of levels. But perhaps it’s the lessons and moments off the court that have helped the most in building the New Jersey native’s legacy in New York.
“It’s really exciting,” Jocelyn said of the experience of playing for her hometown team via a call in 2020 with the YES Network. “I bet we’ll be able to do a lot of really great things with this program. For me my focus is to help in any way that I can: developing by myself but also learning from my teammates and going through this experience together.”
Maintaining a positive attitude combined with unbeatable determination and high-level IQ have become major parts of Jocelyn’s personal brand and have been instrumental in her illustrious basketball career. From outdoor courts to USA trials, all the way to making a name for herself as one the most distinguished players at the University of Virginia, Jocelyn’s ability to lead by example and find the best in circumstances has helped her blossom into not only a top player but also a leader in the community.
Sports were a major part of Jocelyn’s life growing up in East Orange, New Jersey. Her basketball career started in second grade and became the foundation that helped her lay the groundwork for what would become a topflight career.
Her high school years at Newark Academy were nothing short of dominant. As a freshman and sophomore Jocelyn helped lead Newark to two-straight back-to-back Prep B girls’ basketball state titles. She reached another milestone her sophomore year when she became the first player in school history to score 1,000 career points.
Her top tier performances earned her honors such as 2016 Gatorade New Jersey Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year, in addition to spots on the MaxPreps All-America Fourth Team in 2016. Her average of 21.9 points, 12.8 rebounds, 3.9 blocks, 3.8 assists, and 3.1 steals also earned her the title of two-time First Team All-State and All-County.
By her senior year at Newark Academy, she held the No. 8 ranking in the wing category and No. 47 overall on ESPN’s Top 100.
Jocelyn’s high school success attracted then-Virginia coach Joanne Boyle, who was keen to bring her to Charlottesville to play for the Cavaliers in the ACC.
It didn’t take long for Jocelyn to settle in the college landscape, as she made the All-ACC Freshman and Academic Teams her first year, following an MVP performance at the Cavalier Classic Tournament, while also becoming the first freshman to lead UVA in rebounding since 2002.
A stellar first season for coach Joanne Boyle earned her an invitation to the USA Basketball U19 Women’s World Cup Team trials at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 2017. The following three years followed in a similar fashion, with Jocelyn starting every game her sophomore year, and while in her junior year leading Virginia in both scoring with 14.8 points per game and rebounding in 8.3 rebounds per game and becoming the first player to do so since 2010. Not to mention she did all of this while lighting up the scoreboards with multiple 20-point games that same season.
These golden years ultimately helped set the stage for Jocelyn to make her own kind of history by the end of her four-year college journey. Not only did she start all 127 games of her collegiate career, but also by the time she finished playing for the Cavaliers in 2019 her name was well-represented on all-time Virginia career scoring lists:
Her success was also recognized both in the ACC Conference and also nationally. Jocelyn finished second in the ACC in free-throw percentage at 87.0 percent, with a rank of 20th in the nation, while also averaging 19.2 points per game, earning her a place as 24th in the nation.
The hardwood inside John Paul Jones Arena wasn’t the only place in Charlottesville that felt Jocelyn’s impact. When she wasn’t suiting up in the blue and orange, she found a second home in the classroom. Just as she’s earned multiple honors in sports, she also continued to collect hardware for her academic successes. She earned her undergraduate degree in Global Development Studies in May 2019, graduating in just three years before enrolling in the leadership and public policy program at the Batten School of Public Policy and Leadership where she’s pursuing her master’s degree.
Her reputation as a deep thinker and engaging student also earned her another coveted honor by Virginia students: the opportunity to be a resident of the Lawn on the school grounds. Known for rooms designed by Thomas Jefferson and surroundings of high achieving scholars, the process to become a resident of this academic village is set forth by the university and puts an emphasis on a “demonstrated commitment to academic exploration and growth,” “meaningful and engaged participation” in extracurricular activities, and a “willingness to embrace the ideals of the Lawn community.
Lawn resident. Elite athlete. It’s only fitting that she earned one of the highest conference awards that encompasses both endeavors.
On top of averaging 19.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in her final season, she also took home the ACC Women’s Basketball Scholar Athlete of the Year. Jocelyn Willoughby was the first player from Virginia to win the annual Kay Yow Award, which is awarded to junior or senior student athletes who maintained a 3.0 grade point average for their career in addition to a 3.0 for each of the last two semesters. The award is based 60 percent on academic achievement and 40 percent on athletic accomplishment.
As per Virginia athletics, Jocelyn was also named to the All-ACC First Team by the head coaches. She was also named as a two-time Google Cloud Academic All-District Women’s Basketball Team honoree and is the only player in the ACC to earn that honor in each of the last two years.
She’s still pursuing her master’s, although it did hit a roadblock. The beginning of 2020 was challenging on the academic front for Jocelyn as well, as all of her classes for her master’s program were switched to an online format.
With all the changes happening it would have been easy for her to sulk and think about the ‘what could have been’. However, talking with close family, friends, and coaches gave her a new perspective: the transition from finishing school to draft-related engagements was suddenly made much easier given that she could take care of business in one place at her fingertips instead of traveling back and forth on the east coast.
“The blessing in disguise was having classes transferred online. If this weren’t the circumstance it would be challenging missing so much class time and finding a way to successfully complete the rest of the semester,” she said in an interview with Virginia Sports.
Although Jocelyn’s rookie year was considered historic compared to those before her, she still has fond memories of her experience. Her journey started last April on draft night. With her storied college career, coaches, and multiple awards singing her praises she was a sure pick amid a packed rookie class. She was selected by the Phoenix Mercury with the 10th pick, but was later traded to the New York Liberty.
Not only did hearing her name on draft night fulfill a personal goal, but also it made her only one of a few players to be drafted in Virginia’s program history. Already in elite company in her own regard, her selection also follows in the footsteps of former Cavalier and current UVA coach Monica Wright.
Looking at the replay of the draft video, it’s not hard to tell that Jocelyn Willoughby was relieved to have her name called.
“It was overall shocking,” she told Virginia Sports. “For me it was just a matter of not knowing where I was going or when my name was going to be called so just hearing that I was like, ‘it happened.’”
Jocelyn wasn’t the only new person on the Liberty roster. Upon joining the team after the draft, she found herself alongside seven rookies, the most in the league. Although it presented a challenge for her in terms of adjustment, she was reminded of a similar situation 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,” she told Nets Republic.
Her rookie year was spent as part of a relatively young lineup that was led by the likes of Kia Nurse and Layshia Clarendon. Her ability to shoot the ball confidently was bound to be a big asset for the Liberty, who are a team that’s known for shooting the ball. Jocelyn was a key add as they looked to continue their scoring ability and build upon their 41.4-percent field goal average from 2019.
It was also the year that the team was supposed to make its debut at the Barclays Center as their home arena. However, plans shifted rapidly in response to the pandemic as the WNBA moved its season to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Even though training wasn’t held on a team basis, Jocelyn still trained individually in Brooklyn the week before their departure for Florida. The team spent the rest of the time learning through what she describes as “quarterback calls”, which were designed to help the team learn plays, and offensive and defensive schemes so they could become more familiar with each other on the floor.
Although the Liberty’s 2-20 record wasn’t the result the team hoped for, Jocelyn was able to grow in her first professional season after starting five of the season’s 22 games. Her teammates also made sure to get the ball in her hands, too. She shot an average of 33.3- percent from field goal range and 40.5-percent from behind the arc, which was a boost to the team’s overall season average of 43.9 field goal percentage.
Playing in a bubble can be strange for anyone, let alone a rookie. But for Jocelyn it was an opportunity to get a deeper glimpse into the lives of some of the league’s greatest players that she might not see during a traditional season.
“It was a pretty incredible experience,” she said. “I think having all the teams, all the players there together, that was special for me as a rookie because you get to see players not just from the standpoint of who they are on the court but who they are as people as well and also see their work ethic.”
This extended from off-court hobbies all the way to studying how the top players cared for their bodies.
“You get to see the top players in the league and see what it takes to be great: how they take care of their bodies, how they work on their craft. Some of those things it was really cool to see as a rookie in addition to their efforts and interests off the court that they were still pursuing while in the bubble.”
With a successful first rookie season under her belt, Jocelyn traveled to Israel to play for Petah Tiva in the 2020 offseason. It didn’t take her long to settle into her new role, as she lit up the stat sheets with multiple 30-point games just a few months into the season.
Much like her rookie season in America, there was an adjustment period in Israel as well.
“You have this idea of what your life overseas is going to be like,” she said on a podcast with Virginia Athletics. “But then there’s the reality.”
Reality, it turns out, consisted of a lockdown during the first part of her stay following a spike in cases after the holiday season. That also meant that travel was restricted, and as a result Jocelyn and her teammates were unable to explore, aside from Tel Aviv and one trip to Jerusalem. Despite it being a different experience culturally, Jocelyn saw improvements in herself basketball-wise.
Averaging over 36 minutes per game, she recorded two 30-point games and numerous 20+ point performances. While she was pleased with her performances, she acknowledges, as she puts it, that she’s consistently a “work in progress” and “always growing.”
“I think it’s been really good to have more experience playing at the professional level. The biggest thing for me was trying to get the game to slow down a little bit, being able to make better reads, being more composed and be more efficient,” she said.
“I made some progress, still not where I want to be but I’m never really satisfied regardless. The stat sheets say one thing but I’m more focused on my growth incrementally day-by-day.”
It’s no question that Jocelyn made an impact in her rookie season for her hometown team. This was especially true on the offensive end where she averaged 5.8 points per game and contributed an average of 17.4 minutes. Although these numbers are lower compared to those in college, she’s still considered a strong shooter who will play a large role in scoring alongside Sabrina Ionescu as a threat with the ball in her hands.
But her biggest contribution comes from the free throw line, where she shot 83.3-percent from the line. She was one of the Liberty’s top performers in this area, right behind Kia Nurse (86.4%) and Layshia Clarendon (87.3%). Now that Kia Nurse has been traded to Phoenix during the offseason, the Liberty will definitely be looking to Jocelyn’s accuracy more in the future.
Jocelyn’s numbers stayed strong during her first professional overseas season for Petah Tikva where she averaged 20.9 points a game and held a steady 43.3-percent average from three-point territory. She also remained tried and true at the free throw line, nailing a 83.3-percent of her shots.
Scoring is one of Jocelyn Willoughby’s biggest assets. She’s a confident shooter who can get to the basket and make plays while also putting up a smooth shot from three-point range. Some of her best shooting is from 10 feet out from the basket, out to the three.
As you can see in the video below, she has an elite ability to score when the team needs it most. This will only pay dividends for her moving forward.
When it comes to free throws, having Jocelyn at the free throw line is like money in the bag and an opponent’s worst nightmare. The WNBA has already gotten a glimpse of what she can do from the line, as was reflected by her shooting 83.3 percent in her rookie year. Her impressive debut put her in the league’s top 25 free throw leaders for 2020 and also made her a stalwart for the Liberty alongside Kia Nurse and Layshia Clarendon.
She took second place in ACC’s FT percentage category in her final year, finishing her college career with an 87-percent average. It’s her ability to do the little things that make her so successful and something that the Liberty will look to capitalize upon in the coming seasons.
Not only can Jocelyn make shots, but also she can rebound them, too. From the moment the ball is out of someone’s hands, chances are she’s the first to go after it. Her quick ability to grab the ball and then pass it to her teammates or even take her own shot is one that sets her up to play against some of the league’s leading players.
This is nothing new for her, as this was a staple for her while at Virginia, as we can see in the highlights below.
For Jocelyn, her biggest opportunity comes from gaining experience at the professional level.
If her rookie season showed anything, it’s that her intelligence combined with athletic ability and unquestionable work ethic is setting her up to make a name for herself at the highest level. For her, it’s just applying those tools to real life situations that will help her blossom.
In the words of Liberty coach Walt Hopkins: “We talk a lot about consistency with the younger players… the thinking with Joce is that she’s the quintessential teammate, she’s an eager learner… she’s always going to do what’s necessary. She shows up every day… Jocelyn’s in every open gym opportunity. She never misses a day, no matter if she plays two minutes or 20… these are the moments that are really special.”
When looking at Jocelyn’s quarter splits, it’s clear she shines in the second quarter, knocking down 60% of total shots taken, and delivering the majority of her assists. While she tends to end games strong as well, holding her performance stronger in quarters one and three could be incredibly impactful for New York.
Her shooting percentage on layups was just 26% last year, which is likely due to being fouled on the way up. If she can figure out a way to secure those buckets and get to the line, it’s a win-win. Improving her ability to play through contact, while continuing to draw the contact, will be key.
If there is an ideal word to help describe Jocelyn’s illustrious career it is “impactful”. Known as an intelligent and thoughtful person stemming all the way back to her days in elementary school, she has always been passionate about lending a hand. While she does this by contributing points and rebounding on the court, she’s also dedicated to leveraging her platform as a professional athlete as a way to help others in different communities. Just as blossoming into a top professional player was at the top of her mind, so was finding ways through the league for her to lend a hand.
“I think as a WNBA player and professional player you have such a unique and huge platform to inspire and to create change,” she told the New York Post. “I think that’s definitely something I’m excited about.”
She didn’t have to wait long to begin finding her voice in the WNBA. Just months after a door to a professional basketball career opened for her, she saw an opportunity to open another one, this time in a different context.
Inspired by her love for reading and creating conversation around current events, Jocelyn worked with the Liberty organization to create Read What You Sow with Jocelyn Willoughby, an online book club that “focuses on the injustices disproportionately facing Black and Brown people within healthcare, education, and other social systems fundamental to the welfare of all people through the lens of womxn of color,” as per the New York Liberty press release.
The idea for the book club was conceptualized in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests and cry for justice following the death of George Floyd. While it was still uncertain if the Liberty would even play basketball in 2020, the team gathered to prepare as if they were going to play basketball, regardless.
But as the cry for justice reached an all-time high, the team instead used that time to check in on one another and to reflect as to how their backgrounds and upbringings impacted how they felt during that time. As a rookie, Jocelyn relished those experiences and credits as part of building the team’s culture that inspired to take action.
In partnership with Cafe con Libros, a feminist bookstore located in Brooklyn, Jocelyn curated a list of books with the intent to educate herself and others on issues around race, specifically for Black people. In addition to the books, participants were issued guided questions with an intent to create dialogue that would help people understand different perspectives and could either reaffirm or challenge their own views. These discussions were held over Zoom, often from her apartment in Israel where she was playing in the offseason.
“I’ve always been a big student, a big reader so for me I felt like you can always turn to books and such, but the conversations are really important. There’s nothing like asking or answering questions, being in dialogue with someone else, seeing how their perspectives reaffirm or challenge your own,” she said.
While it’s uncertain as to if Jocelyn will continue this initiative during the upcoming WNBA season due to time commitments, she has certainly already made an impact on the conversation for the better.
The WNBA recently announced that it will tip off its 25th season on Friday, May 14 where Jocelyn and the New York Liberty will be one of the headlining games when they take on the Indiana Fever at the Barclays Center. Fresh off a successful overseas campaign in Israel, Jocelyn enters her second year in the league with the benefit of playing on the Liberty’s home court.
Having two professional seasons under her belt will lend a lot to her game in her second year as she continues to develop while also helping along Liberty 2021 draft picks in Michaela Onyenwere, DiDi Richards, and Valerie Higgins. Sabrina Ionescu is also set to return, giving the Liberty an advantage with the former No. 1 draft pick at the point guard position.
Jocelyn’s willingness to learn combined with her sharp shooting ability is set up to carry her far in the Liberty lineup this season. The Liberty likes to shoot the ball, so chances are she’ll be a staple in the scoring category alongside teammates Sabrina and Layshia.
As far as the wing position goes, in New York it can be interpreted as either the two, three, or four. There’s potential for Jocelyn to fit in the four position; although not a power forward by trade she was one of the best three-point shooters for the team last season, shooting 40.5 percent from behind the arc.
Whether on the basketball court or in the classroom, Jocelyn has certainly demonstrated that her impact can stretch far and wide. Although the inevitable question of “what comes next” is always up for grabs, she admits to often wondering what she would do without the sport of basketball.
Her reply is simple: “I don’t have an answer yet.”
For now, she’s giving basketball her all. And one thing’s for sure, the Liberty are certainly better off because of it.
Up next, read all about another rising star, Crystal Dangerfield.
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