August 4, 2022
How Jocelyn Willoughby and DiDi Richards can still help the Liberty
New York's got reinforcements back, staying ready
BROOKLYN — On Tuesday, on a new slate gray and neon green court against the Los Angeles Sparks, the New York Liberty had all of their 11 available players step onto the floor. It was the first time ever that both Jocelyn Willoughby and DiDi Richards shared the floor together for longer than a minute here and a minute there. On Tuesday, they were on the floor together for seven minutes during garbage time against L.A., but those seven minutes really mattered for the pair.
Willoughby and Richards fell out of the rotation during the two-game series against the Sky, putting their roles on this team in question. Brondello has shortened the rotation to nine players and at most 10 with both Willoughby and Richards registering DNPs for both games against the Sky at the end of last month. Richards also did not play on Sunday against the Mercury.
Brondello explained to The Next that it’s quite difficult to play 11 players in the span of a 40-minute game. “In basketball, you know, we’re trying to win,” she said. “[It’s] a crucial time of our season and it’s hard to play everybody, just impossible. They have to stay ready and if there’s an opportunity to put them in, I definitely will. It’s just them staying ready and staying confident.”
With four games in seven days ahead for the Liberty, Brondello indicated Wednesday night the moment for them both might have arrived.
“Staying ready” is a term colloquially known and often spouted by players and coaches when asked about their benchwarmers and reserve players. But what exactly does it mean and why do Willoughby and Richards, two young players who received so much praise and had so much promise during training camp this past spring, find themselves in this position?
Plans changed for Willoughby and Richards due to injury
For both the Liberty’s young players, their health has been at the center of this more bumpy road back to regular minutes on the floor.
Willoughby entered training camp having recovered from a ruptured achilles she sustained last preseason in a scrimmage against the Connecticut Sun. This past April she was lauded by Brondello, the coaching staff and her teammates as someone who impressed in camp and in the Liberty’s preseason scrimmages. After so much work behind the scenes to make it back, Willoughby was ready to prove why she had been called a steal of the 2020 draft. She started in the team’s first four games and guarded some of New York’s opponents’ best perimeter players including Kelsey Mitchell and Arike Ogunbowale.
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But then she disappeared in the second half of some of those games. On May 19, we learned why when the team announced that Willoughby was sidelined once again with a partial tear of her left quadriceps tendon. It was an injury that Brondello noted Willoughby didn’t “remember how it happened” Her return was approximated at six weeks — instead she returned to the court two months later on July 19.
Richards had ended the 2021 season on a high note. She was shooting the ball and making shots with much more confidence, and proved that her skill on the defensive end was exceptional and transferable to the professional level. It took a while for her to make it into the Liberty’s rotation last season due to the fact that she wasn’t completely healthy upon entering the WNBA. She had injured her left hamstring in the 2021 Elite Eight just around a month before training camp.
And then after an offseason spent on a team marketing deal while training in the gym with Liberty teammate Betnijah Laney, Richards returned to camp with a renewed confidence and a new looking shot. Her release is much quicker—it comes off her hands like a laser beam. Brondello even wanted to give Richards a larger role this season, which included more ball handling duties along with providing a more defensive look at the point.
Like Willoughby, Brondello also praised how Richards looked in preseason, especially in a scrimmage against the Connecticut Sun. But that scrimmage led to yet another hamstring injury, but this time in her right leg rather than her left. Richards returned to action on June 19 after being out for around a month and a half, excluding her four minute appearance against the Fever on May 13 that resulted in a re-aggravating of that hamstring.
In her limited minutes this season, Richards has been inserted when point guard Crystal Dangerfield has had difficulty with her defensive assignment. And for Willoughby, Brondello prefers to play her at the small forward position rather than the power forward position. Although she tried Willoughby at the four toward the end of New York’s second camp game in Connecticut on July 19, Brondello explained pregame against the Mystics two days later that this is Willoughby’s preference as well. “Joce prefers to be a perimeter player, I want her to be there,” she said.
But following those camp games where Richards and Willoughby played 34 minutes combined, Brondello shortened the rotation against the Sky and both players didn’t leave the bench. The Liberty coach said it was a matter of establishing some continuity — both Richards and Willoughby needed more practice time, opportunities that during this final stretch of the season are tough to come by. Brondello also realized that the Liberty needed a win to break their five-game losing streak, especially with Chicago coming into town on a back-to-back.
Against the Sky there wasn’t room for experimentation. Willoughby and Richards didn’t play in the offseason and making that jump into having not played in months to suddenly playing in live game situations doesn’t come as easily. Players like Marine Johannès who came right from playing in the French league, and Crystal Dangerfield who had played overseas in Israel didn’t arrive onto the Liberty’s roster with those types of setbacks.
The value the duo provides
While it’s hard to see the contributions of Willoughby and Richards on the court or in a box score, they are still players that provide a lot of value to the Liberty. Both Brondello and assistant coach Roneeka Hodges view the two as consummate professionals who show up to practice everyday and work just as hard as every other player on the roster. While they don’t know how both Richards and Willoughby feel inside about their current circumstances, they don’t show any frustration or sadness on the outside in situations when the team’s objectives must be completed.
“I see them still in high spirits,” Hodges told The Next following the Liberty’s practice on July 27. “Sometimes as a player you feel down given the situation, but they didn’t. They came here today, didn’t pay attention to the stats or if you didn’t pay attention to the team, you would never know the situation that they were in. They both work hard and they both proceed and so that’s what we need at this time.”
What the Liberty also need at this time are what Richards and Willoughby do for the team within the sidelines. Both have two unique roles that have helped this team ride the waves of adversity New York has faced all season long.
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Richards almost never actually sits on the bench. She’s often standing up on the sidelines, making fierce poses when her teammates hit shots or make hustle plays. She also is the resident hype woman who has choreographed handshakes with all of her teammates when the starting lineups are presented. She does a cha-cha with Natasha Howard and does a double-tap followed by a handshake with Sabrina Ionescu. For Stefanie Dolson? A good, old-fashioned butt slap. That’s who Richards is for the Liberty and they wouldn’t be the same without her.
Willoughby is a little bit more reserved than Richards. But Willoughby stands when her teammates make shots, she claps repeatedly while her teammates are trying to get a stop on defense and she pulls teammates aside to tell them what she’s noticing. Veteran and two-time All-Star Howard relies upon Willoughby and her very high basketball IQ throughout games so that she can make in-game adjustments.
“She sees a lot of things like I said that we don’t see on the court,” Howard said. “So she told certain people like ‘hey this right here, you could do this right here.’… I ask Jocelyn what are the things I can do differently.”
When Willoughby was asked about how her contributions affect this team the most, she responded by explaining how her disposition and temperament stabilizes the team. Brondello has been a broken-record this year when she has explained how she’s not getting too high or too low when her team struggles or succeeds. Willoughby is the same way, providing her teammates with comfort but also accountability.
“Try to be consistent, even keel,” she said. “Not getting too high when we’re winning and things are going well. And not getting too low when they’re not. And so I think that consistency helps. I think it rubs off my teammates. I’m like, ‘No, look, guys, we’re calm, got this, things are gonna be okay.’”
What is at the essence of ‘staying ready’?
Teammate Rebecca Allen notices the hard work that both have done this year, and Allen herself has been through that journey of trying to establish herself as a capable player this year. She sees in Willoughby and Richards the qualities that she had as a younger player in this league. Throughout Allen’s WNBA career, she’s been known to put her teammates first, providing comfort and positivity when necessary. That’s what she’s seen from her teammates in Willoughby and Richards.
“They’ve been really good at always staying positive and being you know, the positive voices in everyone’s ears and all that stuff too and encouraging but I mean, everyone’s time comes,” Allen said. “It’s just a process. I mean, everyone has their own journey. So you know, so as long as they stay ready and they’re always in practice engaged and they’re giving their most, which they are, good things are always gonna come.”
Ah, we’ve arrived on that phrase once again: staying ready. I asked both Allen and Willoughby what that phrase means exactly.
Allen explained that it can mean something completely different to every player, but for her it’s always meant that no matter if she’s on the bench for five minutes or twenty, she ought to be focused and in a position to give 100 percent of her effort when called upon. Willoughby added that for her this idea of “staying ready” means making sure she’s prepared and knows the scout backwards and forwards regardless of if she’s starting or sitting on the bench for a quarter or an entire game.
But staying ready isn’t always easy or predictable, and for younger players this can be a challenge. Sometimes they don’t always know that the work that they are putting in is noticed. They don’t have the opportunity to ask teammates the questions that a reporter can ask. But in the Players’ Tribune’s latest video feature of Richards and 2021 All-Star Betnijah Laney getting their nails done before the 2022 season, Richards learned how Laney, someone who she calls “her idol” really feels about what she brings to the Liberty.
“Even like last year, it might not have been something, not that you couldn’t do it,” Laney told Richards. “But you weren’t, you didn’t feel like you were in the position to. And so it’s just like you are in a position to, like I see you and I want kind of everyone else to kind of see you. I spent the whole offseason with you, so I know exactly what you can do.”
This meant the world to Richards at the time and it’s a moment that she keeps close to her now. She explained that Laney is the person on this team that can read her emotionally. If Richards is having a rough go at life having to do with basketball or not, Laney knows. “Whenever I’m feeling not good, she knows it,” Richards said. “She’ll come up to me and say something, but I’m most likely looking for something from Betnijah, I’m not going to lie.
Willoughby has gained that support from Laney as well, someone who has also been through dealing with injury after injury. But she has also found that support from Ionescu, Sami Whitcomb and even Richards with the two in the same boat.
While Ionescu was on the bench for the majority of the fourth quarter against the Sparks, for the final two minutes of play, she was up on the sidelines, wanting to give her teammates in Willoughby and Richards the same type of respect, focus and energy that they give her when she’s on the floor. When the Liberty forced a Sparks shot clock violation, mostly due to Willoughby’s tight defense on Chennedy Carter, Ionescu was emphatically clapping, just like how Willoughby clapped for her.
And when the Liberty’s final offensive possession came with 20 seconds left in regulation, the entire New York bench rose after watching Richards nail a mid-range jump shot over Sparks’ guard Kianna Smith. When I asked Ionescu about that moment and what it meant for her to be demonstratively showing up for the Liberty’s reserve players, she summed it up as a matter of reciprocation.
“This year has not been the easiest for [Richards] and dealing with injuries being in and out but you know, she continues to keep her energy the same and willing to do whatever it takes for this team to win,” she said “Whether it’s not play or play a lot or defense, offense, whatever it is. And so we’re super proud of her and her growth and we’re gonna continue to support her along the ride she’s on.”
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also covers women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.