April 27, 2022 

Jocelyn Willoughby returned to Uncasville seeking a ‘different outcome’

A new mindset for the talented third-year wing

BROOKLYN — After practice on Saturday morning, Jocelyn Willoughby had more work to do. After she and her team, the coaches and training staff circled up in the center of The Court at Barclays Center, she trotted over to the far hoop to begin firing up some more shots.

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She focused her attention initially beyond the arc and then concluded by taking free throws. She and Sabrina Ionescu traded threes on that same hoop while assistant coach Roneeka Hodges was rebounding for Willoughby, giving her encouragement between shots. Willoughby began on the right corner pocket and rotated counter clockwise to the left corner pocket and then made a stop at the top of the key.

What followed was a dribble, spin of the basketball in her hands and then a swish. 12 times in a row, basketball operations coordinator Griffin Kent and son of head coach Sandy Brondello, Brodie Lange, didn’t have to run and chase the ball. They heard it go swish and passed it back to Willoughby.

It was fluid, without hesitation or apprehension to those on the outside looking in. But when asked about that accuracy and effortlessness, the third year player shrugged it off and just admitted that she’s “trying” and needs to “get back” into it.

Willoughby is referring to the fact that she hasn’t played in a live basketball game in almost a year. She sustained a tear of her achilles on May 3, 2021 in a pre-season scrimmage away against the Connecticut Sun. This was in fact that same injury that sidelined Breanna Stewart in 2019, Kelsey Plum in 2020 and Alyssa Thomas for most of 2021.

During a season where the Liberty underachieved, the team was without the player Sami Whitcomb believed was one of New York’s best in training camp. A year ago, league COVID protocols prevented media members from viewing exactly how Willoughby looked before she went down against the Sun.

Whitcomb reflected on what Willoughby looked like during those closed weeks of training camp almost a year ago. She observed someone who looked like a more confident shooter in comparison to what she saw during the 2020 Wubble season. During that training camp, Whitcomb got a sense of how her teammate’s game had progressed after spending the offseason developing offensively while playing in Israel.

“I was really excited about her commitment to shooting, her consistency with shooting was really great,” Whitcomb told The Next this past September. “But her penetrating and kicking it out was really, really impressive. She was strong with the ball, she was smart with the ball.” 

But that promise and potential was quashed and what Whitcomb, the then New York coaching staff and the front office believed would be a pivotal year for their 2020 10th overall draft pick suddenly wasn’t. While rupturing her Achilles was a career albatross on paper, her year spent recovering from surgery and then rehabbing allowed the 24 year-old to develop and grow in less obvious ways. What her 2021 WNBA season equated to couldn’t be tracked on HerHoopStats or Synergy Sports but rather represented equally invaluable qualitative development.

In 2021, Willoughby had to find another way that she could give to her team. After surgery and during a period when mobility was an issue, she found that she could take advantage of what fate had given her and engage mentally, figuring out what she had to do to become a leader in this league.

“The way she’s able to contribute right now is using her voice,” Whitcomb said about Willoughby’s role last season. “I think she’s been able to find that voice a little bit more, which has been really great for her. I think still just she’s continuing to learn things as well. See the game. See defensive schemes, see offensively what works, what doesn’t work, those kinds of things. I just think she’s continuing to develop her basketball IQ which is already high, but for sure I think the voice.”

Does Willoughby see the 2022 season as a mirror to her rookie season — one where she was thrust into a new system, new teammates and a new coach? Yes and no. There is a lot of new in 2022: Brondello’s system and only three teammates from 2020 remain in Paris Kea, Sabrina Ionescu and Kylee Shook.

But also, Willoughby doesn’t believe that she’s starting over from ground zero. She’s confident in what she has learned since being drafted. “I have a better understanding of what it takes to be successful, you know, as a team and as an individual,” she told The Next. “And so for me, it’s just going to be continuing to work…And continuing to be more aggressive and more assertive and confident as I settle into this.”

How has the third-year player believed she’s been settling in so far? As the perfectionist she is, Willoughby has learned patience in training camp. She can get frustrated when she makes a mistake or realizes that she isn’t completely there yet with Brondello’s new system. She feels sped up at times with her “mind running” during practice. She’s hyper focused on doing everything she can correctly.

But the upside is that she’s been able to get up and down the court without feeling winded. She isn’t favoring that Achilles and believes she’s worked hard reacquiring her mobility and speed.

Liberty G/F Jocelyn Willoughby looks alert while practicing at the Barclays Center. Photo Credit: Josh Sawyer.

Brondello agrees. “She’s in a good spot,” she told The Next on Willoughby. Brondello hasn’t observed any hesitation while watching her. She’s driving into the paint and penetrating during practice. She takes physical contact, pushes off and sprints. She doesn’t avoid cutting into a crowd. The Liberty’s head coach explained that the process for Willoughby is more incumbent on reacquainting herself with what it’s like to play with teammates and opponents. Brondello emphasized that the frustration Willoughby has been battling internally isn’t something that she or Willoughby can control. She just has to let it happen.

“Focus on what you can control and just go out there and play and learn,” Brondello said. “…It’s more about learning because it’s a new system.”

Amid so much change in two years as a part of this organization, some of the intangibles that the Liberty loved from day one about Willoughby have remained. She’s one of the hardest workers her peers have ever seen. She’s known to impressively balance all of her passions. During the offseason, Willoughby completed her rehab in Charlottesville, Virginia while working on her Masters of Public Policy from her alma mater, the University of Virginia. And she launched the second season of her virtual social justice-oriented book club, Read What You Sow. It’s been her way to connect with and get to know the Liberty fans that up until now she hasn’t been able to interact with in person.

“Jocelyn is a professional,” her teammate Shook told The Next on Friday. “Everything she does, she thinks about why. She plans. She’s just great. Living with her, playing with her in the bubble, I just saw how much she takes care of her body, takes care of her mental space, takes care of everything… Even when she hurt herself afterwards, just seeing the progress she made. Always being with us, always talking to us, always trying to help us. Although she couldn’t be on the court, she was like ‘you could do this.’ She was helping us, so I would say Joce is like a top-tier professional.” 

Shook’s assessment of Willoughby is she’s a pro’s pro. But what should be the expectation going into her junior season? Where will she play most of her minutes? How doe she fit into how Brondello wants to play? Is she a lock for this roster?

Brondello explained that she wants Willoughby to focus on playing mostly on the perimeter, but she doesn’t rule out Willoughby flexing her versatility. New York’s head coach first stressed that not all of their pieces have arrived in Brooklyn (other G/F Rebecca Allen and Center Stefanie Dolson).

“I think she could be a really useful player coming off the bench,” Brondello said. “She’s got good speed. I think she can be a great defender. Really physical. I think she makes good decisions offensively. She can shoot the three but she can also move and get into the paint and finish well. Until we got all the pieces together…we’ll kind of work that all out but I do think she will have a key roll off the bench.”

When Betnijah Laney was asked what she made of Willoughby’s progress in camp, the All-Star didn’t hesitate to call her teammate “hungry,” a player with a chip on her shoulder with something to prove. On Tuesday night, Willoughby returned to Uncasville, the exact place where this non-linear career arc began. This is something Willoughby was well aware of.

The Next: There’s a scrimmage coming up against the Sun…

Willoughby: Yeah.

The Next: And if my memory serves me correct…

Willoughby: You’re right.

Approaching this situation for Willoughby will be all about having gratitude. She knows that what happened last year most likely won’t happen again. She acknowledged that she’s come a long way since early May 2021.

“So it’s definitely been a consideration, but I think mentally it’s just gonna be exciting to focus more on the excitement of being out there and playing again, rather than on the fear of like, what could happen.” 

A goal of Willoughby’s on Tuesday night against the Sun, and then throughout the rest of training camp, will be to remember why she plays basketball in the first place. While she can appear a very serious person and player on the surface, she knows that she needs to remember the pure satisfaction and enjoyment that comes with playing this game.

It’s a game that has given her not only joy but also confidence and self-assurance in her leadership capabilities. It’s a place where she belongs. She’s motivated. She can do this all again. And in Uncasville, she desired a different outcome — and as her IG story shows, she got it.

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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