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Former Virginia star Jocelyn Willoughby reflects on rookie WNBA season

Former Virginia star Jocelyn Willoughby reflects on rookie WNBA season


As Jocelyn Willoughby reflected on her first WNBA season, she caught herself.

The former Virginia star started to say she had a “great” rookie season before quickly pivoting and saying she posted a “good” 2020 campaign.

Playing in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, Willoughby and the New York Liberty missed the playoffs with a 2-20 record. Despite frequent losses, the Liberty possesses a talented young group with potential.

Willoughby played an important role within that youthful roster, finishing the season among the top 10 of WNBA rookies in points, assists, steals, 3-pointers made and free throws made.

The No. 10 overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft played 17.4 minutes per game, averaging 5.8 points and 2.4 rebounds per contest.

“I was pretty proud of myself,” Willoughby said of her first WNBA season. “I think I definitely grew over the course of the season. I think I was still kind of true to my nature in terms of being a hard worker, high energy, just tough player.”

Consistency varied for Willoughby’s offensive showings, but her defensive effort and intensity remained high all season. She randomly became hot from long range, having two games of perfect 3-point shooting on at least three attempts despite not making a 3-pointer in 15 of the team’s 22 games.

In a late-season performance, Willoughby dropped 21 points on 7-of-8 shooting in a loss to the Los Angeles Sparks. When Willoughby’s shot hit, it seemed to hit all game. She added a steal and a block in the contest.

“I think I was pretty solid on the defensive end,” Willoughby said. “Sometimes just playing against some of the greatest players, they’re gonna get their points, but I think overall it was pretty solid. Offensively, I know I have a lot of work to do but was proud of how I put together some good performances and also efficient.”

She learned what it took on a daily basis to play professionally, saying she needs to be faster at recognizing plays and defenses to help grow into her offensive potential. Willoughby also gained a better understanding of the work required to succeed at the WNBA level.

Outside of game action, Willoughby grew into her voice.

The Liberty dedicated their season to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old woman who was killed by police officers in Louisville in March. The police entered Taylor’s apartment during the night to execute a no-knock search warrant and shot Taylor.

Taylor’s death and the lack of charges for the police officers who killed Taylor were among the reasons for nationwide protests this summer and fall. The Liberty spoke out in support of Taylor and her family throughout the season, drawing attention to her death.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Willoughby said of using her voice to address social issues. “I think I’ve definitely learned a lot just being around my teammates. Some of them are more outspoken or use their platforms a little bit better than I do at this moment, and they’re veterans. Looking up to them and picking their brains a little bit and learning, I definitely think I got more comfortable with my voice.”

Teammates encouraged Willoughby to use her voice, saying people listen to her when she speaks. As Willoughby said, it’s an ongoing process to determine when and how to use her voice to help create positive change in communities.

She called it “inspiring and empowering” to be a part of the WNBA during the summer as the league took a stand against racial injustice and police brutality. Following the police shooting of Wisconsin man Jacob Blake, several WNBA games were postponed.

For years, the league has been at the forefront of speaking out about social issues.

That didn’t change this summer.

Players like Willoughby used their voices to protest change while still competing in a bubble because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The regular season was shortened to 22 games this summer instead of the usual 34 and there wasn’t the typical home crowd at games this season. Frequent COVID-19 tests were also used to help ensure players were safe while within the bubble.

Despite an unusual rookie season, Willoughby embraced the top level and learned from teammates and peers both on and off the court.

“I feel like if I’m back next year I’m gonna have another rookie season because hopefully things will be back to normal,” Willoughby said. “It’ll be a learning curve still. I don’t even know if this season and what it felt like can compare to a normal WNBA season, but I do think there was a lot to learn and grow from and appreciate.”

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