“#Liberty rookie Jocelyn Willoughby looking to make impact on and off court”
The draft board may have read that the Phoenix Mercury took Willoughby 10th overall, but Phoenix was ultimately selecting for the Liberty, who had a trade in place to acquire the pick and had set their sights on the 6-foot 22-year-old since the start of her senior season at Virginia.
Instead of having to move across the country, Willoughby landed with a team that has relocated to the Barclays Center — just more than 15 miles away from her hometown of East Orange, N.J. — on a full-time basis.
Though her official debut on Saturday will be in Bradenton, Fla., instead of Brooklyn, due to the WNBA relocating to a bubble-type setting amid the coronavirus pandemic, Willoughby is already thinking of ways to immerse herself into the Brooklyn community to see where she can make a difference.
That’s just what Willoughby has always done. She finds a way to lend a helping hand wherever she goes.
“I think it’s super important to become part of the community, learn the community and figure out what specifically are the needs of the community that you’re a part of and serving,” Willoughby told The Post on a recent phone call.
The Newark Academy graduate already has her eye on Hope House, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated women integrate back into the community at-large. After the Liberty held a panel on June 19 — commonly celebrated as Juneteeth or Freedom Day — that featured her Liberty teammate Layshia Clarendon and Nets guard Garrett Temple, Willoughby envisioned herself taking part in the future.
Landing with the Liberty was a serious bonus for Willoughby. Not just because of the countless Liberty games she went to when the team played at Prudential Center during renovations to Madison Square Garden from 2011-13, but because of the franchise’s roots in the area where she grew up.
Having an opportunity to make a difference in the community that gave so much to her just might be the only thing more important to Willoughby than being a basketball player.
“I think as a WNBA player and professional player you have such a unique and huge platform to inspire and to create change,” she said. “I think that’s definitely something I’m excited about.”
Willoughby’s drive to create positive change in her surroundings originated long before she was drafted to the WNBA. It’s a striking trait that seems to jump out to anybody she meets. It’s like a footprint she’s left in every stage of her life.
Nobody saw that side of Willoughby better than her high school college counselor, Kerry Winiarski, who has been working with student-athletes as Newark Academy’s director of college counseling since the late-’90s.
“I remember thinking, ‘How can this girl be 14?’ ” Winiarski recalled of meeting Willoughby as a freshman. “Given that coaches were already contacting her at such a young age, she really had the maturity and poise to push back and say, ‘I’m not ready, yet. I want to be in high school, I want to do all these other things first and here are some of the things that I want to do.’ ”
Winiarski remembers how Willoughby immediately became heavily involved in the school’s Equity Inclusion Team, which promotes diversity, equity and justice throughout the school community. She also participated in the UMOJA club, an African-American student awareness group, before eventually becoming the president.
“Early on she went right into those hard topics, which is difficult for younger high school students,” Winiarski said. “When people met Jocelyn, you almost had to say, ‘Oh, by the way, did you know she also plays basketball?’ ”
In the spring of her junior year, Willoughby was one of 16 students accepted out of a pool of 60 applicants for Newark Academy’s Peer Leadership Program, run by Winiarski. The program paired her with 12 to 15 ninth graders to meet with for one class period per day to help transition them to the upper part of the school that runs from sixth grade through 12th.
A few months in, Willoughby and Winiarski attended the People of Color Conference, hosted by the National Association of Independent Schools. It was just four months after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Mo., which sparked national outrage in 2014.
“Jocelyn took that unit and she nailed it, she taught the peer leaders and then all the peer leaders were able to teach their classes,” Winiarski said. “Again, on the issues like that that matter so much to her, she is able to really teach them in a way that makes other people understand.
“We’ve redone our whole unit based on what Jocelyn taught us that year, teaching about privilege.”
Coaches had told Winiarski that Willoughby would be “one of the most highly recruited athletes out of Newark Academy.” And so the longtime college counselor was prepared for a flood of coaches to come through the school.
What she wasn’t prepared for was how particular Willoughby was about how she wanted the process to go. This was a business decision for Willoughby, one that she took so seriously that she made a point to meet with coaches outside of her home in hopes of keeping everything professional.
“In every one of those visits, the questions she would ask had very little to do with basketball. She’d say, ‘Tell me about the issues that matter in your community?’ and ‘As a basketball player, to what extent can I be involved and have a voice in those issues in your community?’ ” Winiarski said. “Coaches were sometimes, not taken aback, but some of them weren’t prepared to talk about those issues in the way that Jocelyn was ready to talk about them. It was fascinating for me to watch that.”
Willoughby eventually committed to Virginia, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in global studies in three years before enrolling in UVa’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy for her masters last year.
Maintaining a 3.9 GPA through undergrad and a 3.6 through graduate school so far, Willoughby was showered with student-athlete accolades following the 2019-20 season. She was one of 15 players to be named an academic All-American and was the first player in UVa history to win the Kay Yow Award, which honors the ACC women’s basketball scholar-athlete of the year.
Willoughby also became the first female athlete at Virginia to win scholar athlete of the year twice, all while finishing as the ACC’s leading scorer for the 2019-20 season by averaging 19.2 points to go with 7.7 rebounds per game.
But long before the start of her senior season, Willoughby set a major goal for herself. One that was bigger than any of the collegiate awards she earned for both her talent and her academics.
Willoughby watched the 2019 WNBA Draft and made a note to herself in her iPhone calendar. She researched the projected date of the 2020 draft and decided that when that day rolled around, she’d be expecting to hear her name called.
“Just seeing some of the names that were being called, having competed against some of them or just been familiar with their games, that’s when I said, ‘I think I can definitely do this,’ ” she said.
That was a story that stuck with Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb, who says he vividly remembers when Willoughby told him of that goal she had set for herself.
“She plays the way that we want to play the game,” he said. “When you look at her 3-point percentage, her ability to get to the free-throw line, I believe was in the 99th percentile in the nation, and she’s just very efficient with her game. She’s a tough player, and then the most startling thing about her is when you hear her interview.”
Kolb recalled how the coaching staff, which added a new head coach in January and new assistants April, was taken with Willoughby following its individual meetings with her as well. Kolb also said Willoughby’s agent described her as an “exceptional human being,” and he couldn’t have agreed more.
The 2020 WNBA Draft was Kolb’s second as the Liberty general manager, so when he found himself talking about life in general with one of his potential draftees, he took note. And after speaking with her Virginia coaches, Kolb wasn’t surprised to learn of her passion for community involvement.
Kolb said he and the rest of the Liberty’s new coaching staff have been striving to implement a new culture. Willoughby is the epitome of what they were looking for.
“Coming to New York, there’s more than just basketball here, there’s a community and so much diversity,” he said. “Having our players out there and amongst the fans and touching all those areas, people that have a passion for things outside of the game really translates well here in New York.
“Those extracurriculars and her passion, we thought matched off-court as well.”
Willoughby will soon get her chance to make an impact on New York, like she has everywhere else she’s been.
“Using my education and this platform and resources long term to figure out from a policy level, structure level, what can be done,” she said. “Sometimes we’re throwing solutions at the issue but not really addressing the root cause and so I think it’s important to get an understanding from the ground, what are the real issues here?”
The player may be working in Florida now, but the spirit is already in Brooklyn. Good for the player. Better for Brooklyn.
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