Jocelyn Willoughby's balancing act is just beginning

Will 2020's 10th overall pick by the Liberty be the "steal of the draft"?

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New York Liberty forward-guard Jocelyn Willoughby. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

There’s a reason why Jocelyn Willoughby’s social media handle is @swishbeast. Teammates Amanda Zahui B. and Jazmine Jones have both praised her as one of the strongest players on the roster.

“She will knock some people out, and it’s going to be great to witness that,” Zahui B. said.

During a scrimmage on Monday against an experienced and well-coached Washington Mystics team, Willoughby hauled down a pass from Layshia Clarendon. With the ball, she jabbed to fake out Tianna Hawkins, passed to Zahui B., and then received the ball on a handoff from the Liberty center.

The 6’ Willoughby was now one-on-one against reigning WNBA finals MVP Emma Meesseman. A mismatch. With Meesseman’s hand a few feet away from Willoughby’s face, the rookie drove around the Belgian forward and kicked out to Kia Nurse who Leilani Mitchell had left wide open for a three.

Swish.

When Rebecca Lobo reacted to Jocelyn Willoughby’s selection in this past April’s draft, she let viewers know that sources were calling the University of Virginia alumna “the steal of the draft.” That sentiment was later echoed by Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins and general manager Jonathan Kolb, who traded for Willoughby in a draft that gave them over half of their current roster.

“I kind of want to keep it a secret that Jocelyn is really, really good,” Hopkins joked when he addressed the media on Friday afternoon. “Part of me doesn’t want to say anything nice right now, but for her sake, I think I should.”

Willoughby is a polymath whose sponge-like approach to learning how to function in the WNBA is a major advantage in a limited season. Teammate Kiah Stokes called her one of the hardest workers she has ever seen.

Hopkins recounted a conversation that he had under his breath off to the side during one practice. The next day, and without any prompting, Willoughby was making adjustments.

“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,” he said.

She doesn’t just hear everything, but rather she listens. There’s a difference. She has an ability to not only soak up every little X and O of New York’s “New Era” basketball but also she has a grasp of her teammates’ tendencies and personalities. (They’ve only been together in real life for less than two weeks.)

“She’s everything you really want in a teammate,” Sabrina Ionescu said on Sunday of Willoughby. “She’s very supportive, always listening. Works very, very hard and is very talented on both sides of the floor, offense, and defense. And so I’ve really enjoyed playing with her. I mean whenever we have an opportunity, I try to pick her to get on my team because she’s just a winner.”

Willoughby has an immediate understanding of the WNBA’s impact on the current state of the world. After getting off a call with the player’s union on July 14, the rookie learned she had just been voted in as the Liberty’s player representative to the WNBPA, which Clarendon knew was bound to happen.

The rookie embraces every media appearance, flashing a giddy smile during each question, and treating each availability like it’s her first time answering on behalf of a professional franchise. Zahui B. describes her as an “angel” and a “genuine great human.” On draft night, Willoughby set up a Zoom call with all of her past coaches and teammates so she could thank them and share the evening together.

She also is motivated by the idea of giving back to her home community. Willoughby is from East Orange, NJ, a town around 25 miles out of Brooklyn. She was disappointed that her first season wouldn’t feature that homecoming, but at the back of her mind, she’ll be thinking about how in 2021 she can invest and give back to the programs that helped her reach the WNBA.

Willoughby rolls on a pick during practice at IMG Academy. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Willoughby called herself a “servant leader by nature,” which is not only consistent with her desire to give back to communities close to home but aligns with her undergraduate and graduate degrees at UVA. She graduated early with a degree in global development studies, and due to her WNBA commitments, she has put her master’s degree at the Batten School of Public Policy and Leadership on hold.

“I think as a leader, I'm never looking to assert myself,” she said. “I'm more so looking to fill a role and just kind of serve. I think I'm a servant leader by nature.”

Is that really true? Willoughby does assert herself on the court, which is a compelling contrast. She’s physical. Remember, she muscled her way past Emma Meesseman. She is explosive in that she can get to the hoop in less than two seconds off an entry pass into the wing.

On a pick-and-roll drill in practice, Willoughby set a quick pick in front of Hopkins, and then rolled out to right outside of the arc. While the defense of Hopkins and assistant coach Dustin Gray pressed teammate Leaonna “Neah” Odom who had the ball, the former Duke Blue Devil was able to find Willoughby on a bounce pass. With one dribble and a ball reversal into her left hand, the 10th overall pick hoisted the ball up for a layup, escaping a contest from assistant coach Kelly Raimon.

According to Hopkins, Willoughby can play most positions excluding the one and the five, but she’s most suited to be a three-four hybrid, which according to Lobo are difficult to find. For Kolb, however, it’s her defense that has opened even more eyes.

“Her pro-ready defense is what has really stood out so far for us,” he said. “And that’s something that will get you on the court right away in our league, rookie or otherwise.”

A theme for the Liberty this season is this idea that while there are seven rookies, these first years won’t be treated as such. With Asia Durr officially “medically exempt” from the 2020 season, and Bec Allen opting out of Bradenton, the first years “don’t really have time” to act like rookies according to Clarendon.

Willoughby especially won’t have this time, and she understands this. She’s “wise beyond her years.” Her maturity fits the moment for the Liberty, who currently are deficient at the three spot with Megan Walker’s status still TBD.

When asked about her role and what she’s aiming to contribute, Willoughby acknowledged how her situation is still fluid. Her contributions are going to come from both ends of the floor, giving Hopkins and his staff the flexibility that they have wanted since day one of the new coaching regime.

As of last Wednesday, she believes she’ll play a bit of small forward with an option to play at the two. But, it’s very possible that she could play the four and slot into Allen’s pre-COVID role.

She wants to “extend the defense,” and drive and kick so that she can set up her teammates. “[I’m] Especially looking to get after it on the defensive end and cause some disruption and trouble for other players,” she said. “I think my aggressiveness and physicality will still translate to this level. It might look a little different but you know, just the things that are to my core.”

Her core on the court remains the same off of it. She’s a sponge and it doesn’t matter if she’s discussing a double-screen or is researching the history of athlete activism. She’s a quick study and an avid learner. She has an awareness of her platform and is contemplating how to use it best. She knows that in order to change the system, she ought to understand it.

“I think my personal goal right now is to educate myself on these systems and some of their shortcomings and figure out ways in which we can influence them and create change, long-lasting and permanent positive change,” she said. “So, that's my first goal is education and figuring out more tangible, concrete steps to create change.”

A concrete first step is making her mark as a player rep for the WNBPA. Willoughby told The Next that this new leadership role is important to her because it allows her to understand the decisions that affect her on a daily basis. She also wanted an opportunity to “engage and shape the landscape of the game” while advocating for her teammates.

Ionescu is looking forward to how Willoughby will succeed in her new role.

She studied a lot of that stuff in school. So I know when we first got on Zoom, she’s a little bit quiet at first but then when there was conversations about the things that were going on in our society that needed to be changed, she was the first one who always spoke up about what she thinks needs to be changed, her views, how things haven’t gone well in the past and how they can go well in the future. I’ve learned a lot from her just by listening to her and through her studies in school. And I think that there’s no one else that’s more fitting for that postition and for our team. And I think a lot of people will go to her with a lot of ideas. She’s always spuing ideas that she has about what we want on our shirts, what do we want to do with the names on our back of our jerseys, whatever it is that we are discussing as a team, she’s always that voice that everyone listens to who is very compassionate and listens to everyone else. 

Back in April after the draft, Willoughby told UVA Today that she spent a large portion of her college career “balancing and splitting” her focus and energy between her studies and basketball. “I’ve been able to have a lot of success with those split responsibilities, and I’m kind of excited for the opportunity to just focus on basketball,” she said.

This statement is only partially true. Technically, Willoughby will still be balancing. She’ll be learning how to perfect her jab step in conjunction with serving on the WNBPA, brainstorming ways to invest in local communities, and she’ll be joining a professional sports league in its fight against racism and racial injustice.

Willoughby’s balancing act at Virginia must have been strenuous, but it’s going to continue. Her college days only prepared her for where the WNBA is going, which is a moment made exactly for Jocelyn Willoughby.