Monica Wright Rogers joined the Virginia women’s basketball coaching staff in May of 2019. When the former Cavalier star greeted Jocelyn Willoughby ahead of the 2019-20 season, she had a message for UVa’s latest star.
“The very first day she met me she was like, ‘You’re gonna be a draft pick,” Willoughby said, “we need to start working on this.”
Wright’s words turned into reality months later, when Willoughby heard her name called as the No. 10 overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft. She became the first UVa player drafted since Wright went second overall in 2010.
Wright knew Willoughby possessed the talent to become a WNBA draft pick when she took the assistant coaching job.
The new coach just needed to know from Day 1 that Willoughby was willing to put in the work to become a more consistent, confident player. Wright needed to know Willoughby held a desire to play in the WNBA.
“First, I needed to hear from her that she wanted it,” Wright said, “and she did. She told me flat out it’s what she wanted, and I saw her ability, but you can have the ability and not want it. She had both.”
Once Wright knew UVa’s top scorer wanted to make it in the WNBA, the coach and player went to work. Wright helped Willoughby study the game, showing Willoughby what the senior’s strengths were while helping Willoughby improve the holes in her game.
Under Wright’s watch, Willoughby grew more confident in her game.
She became the ACC’s leading scorer at 19.2 points per game, and she snatched over seven rebounds per contest. Willoughby played within Virginia’s system, but she also grew to understand that the Cavaliers needed her scoring to be at their best.
She was the No. 1 option, and she needed to be.
It was a season of consistent excellence for Willoughby. On April 17, that excellence paid off when she was selected in the WNBA Draft, giving UVa women’s basketball its first draft pick in a decade.
“Just realizing that, not even being drafted, but just some of things I was able to accomplish at UVa hadn’t happened until she was there,” Willoughby said of Wright. “It was just really, really special to be able to share that with her back a part of the program because I know she put so much effort and energy into building it, and I was able to kind of carry that forward.”
To celebrate the moment amid restrictions caused by COVID-19, Willoughby held a Zoom call with former coaches and friends to practice social distancing while ensuring she didn’t become a draft pick alone.
One of those coaches on the call was an emotional Wright.
“She’s just like, ‘I can’t say too much right now because I don’t want to start crying, but just so, so proud of you,’” Willoughby said.
Wright wasn’t thinking about her role in Willoughby become the first UVa draft pick since 2010. Instead, she was struck by all the people on the call to support Willoughby during an incredible individual accomplishment. Wright called the reaction of those on the call to Willoughby’s selection “a beautiful, beautiful moment.”
“Her entire village was there to support her, and that’s the part that really touched me, because Jocelyn has done a great job of making sure that she left a great legacy here, and people are just happy – genuinely happy – for her because they know who she is, which is a great young lady,” Wright said.
Willoughby was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury before being traded the same night to the New York Liberty.
The WNBA season, local team tryouts, training camp and other events are all currently postponed due to COVID-19. Willoughby’s pro career is temporarily on hold.
When the season does begin, however, Willoughby adds another member to her village of supporters.
“I want to walk through this entire thing with her,” Wright said. “It felt like when I went and got drafted I didn’t really have that until later on in my pro career. I definitely want to be a sounding board for her as she walks through her pro career and just let her know that she has support and she has tons of people that want to help her and support her and be someone that she can lean on because it’s not easy. The entire pro experience and being a pro is very hard, and you can’t do it alone.”
Joining Wright in supporting Willoughby is Tina Thompson, UVa’s head coach and the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 WNBA Draft. Associate head coach Karleen Thompson, Tina Thompson’s collegiate teammate, is a WNBA coaching veteran having spent time as a WNBA assistant coach, head coach and general manager.
Between those three, the WNBA connections run deep on the UVa bench.
“To have one of our babies drafted and be able to have that opportunity from this program is everything,” Wright said.