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Former Virginia star Jocelyn Willoughby readies for first WNBA season in Florida ‘bubble’

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Former Virginia basketball star Jocelyn Willoughby is preparing for her rookie season with the WNBA’s New York Liberty.

When Jocelyn Willoughby was drafted, she expected to join the stacked Phoenix Mercury. Soon after she was picked 10th overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft, the former Virginia star was traded to the New York Liberty. The New Jersey native expected to play in front of loyal home crowds.

Instead, as it has done many times before, COVID-19 caused a change of plans.

Willoughby’s rookie season will take place at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The IMG Academy will house the athletes, while also hosting the games and serving as a spot to practice. Starting in late July, the WNBA is expected to play the entirety of its shortened 22-game regular season and subsequent postseason in Florida to help mitigate the risk of players, coaches and employees contracting the virus during the season.

“It’s so different from what I was excited about after being drafted, just anticipating that first home game in the Barclay’s Center and having so many of my family members and friends supporting me,” Willoughby said. “It’s not going to be the same narrative in that sense, but I think there’s still a lot to be excited about.”

There certainly is plenty to be excited about for Willoughby. The rookie intends on playing the 2020 season as other players drop out due to concerns over COVID-19 and racial injustice – some players will sit out the season to better focus their time on protesting racial injustice and police brutality.

Willoughby, however, is looking forward to her first season on the court as a professional.

She’s also looking forward to using her platform as a professional athlete in a major sports league to help raise awareness and combat racial injustice. Without having yet played a WNBA game, though, Willoughby is still trying to figure out how she might use that platform in a league she doesn’t know that well yet.

“I’m trying to find — in the midst of everything and especially transitioning to this new level — what my voice looks like and what my voice sounds like and what action looks like for me,” Willoughby said. “That’s something I’ve been questioning, but I think I’ve been appreciative of the conversations that my team and even throughout the league that have been had about really taking the momentum of everything that’s going on in this world and continuing with it.”

Like most things these days, there’s an element of uncertainty. Willoughby does expect the league and teams to come up with some way to stand against racial injustice; she’s just not quite sure how that will look next month.

In the immediate future, Willoughby said Thursday she plans to head to the Liberty team facility in the next few days. In the coming weeks she’ll head to Florida. If everything with the season goes according to plan — Florida is currently experiencing a large spike in COVID-19 cases — Willoughby will spend a few months in Florida for the 2020 WNBA season.

UVa’s leading scorer in 2019-20 is doing her best to remain in shape. She’s excited to arrive at the team facility and start more formal work. Willoughby is hopeful that she’ll be prepared for any possible situation. Usually, WNBA regular seasons last 34 games. This year’s shortened season played in one city makes for an unusual circumstance.

Given her inexperience, Willoughby thinks the odd circumstances could actually benefit her.

“I think, more so than veterans possibly, I have the potential to be more adaptive to whatever situation is presented because I don’t know anything different,” Willoughby said.

Staying healthy is one of the goals Willoughby holds entering the season. She also wants to win games and learn as much as she can about competing in the league. She won’t be alone in the learning process — the Liberty feature seven rookies on their roster. It’s a young team loaded with talent entering an unprecedented WNBA season.

Due to COVID-19, professional sports are experiencing a new set of circumstances. For Willoughby, that means a strange rookie season waits.

“I think it’s definitely been, in terms of preparing for a season, unlike any other that I’ve encountered,” Willoughby said.

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