COLUMBIA — For Aleighsa Welch, it wasn’t about where she was selected. The former Goose Creek and South Carolina star just wanted to hear her name called during Thursday night’s WNBA draft.
And that happened 10 picks into the second round, when the Gamecocks’ three-year captain was taken by the Chicago Sky with the 22nd overall selection. Welch was sitting at a table with her parents, brother and USC head coach Dawn Staley when she at last heard her name called during the draft at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
“I don’t think it’s possible to honestly put it into words,” Welch, an honorable mention All-American as a senior, said in a telephone interview. “To hear my name called, it’s amazing, it really is. To walk across the stage, and get my jersey, and have my picture taken — I really am at a loss for words right now, because it’s a dream. It’s always been a dream for me, and to be in this position, I’m forever grateful.”
The All-SEC selection had been projected by some outlets to go early in the second round of the draft, which was comprised of three rounds of 12 picks each. But that dynamic changed last week when underclassmen such as Jewell Loyd of Notre Dame and Amanda Zahui B. of Minnesota — who were the first two overall selections Thursday night — announced they were leaving school a year early.
So Welch had to wait until later in the second round before joining Jocelyn Penn (first round, 2003), Petra Ujheyli (second round, 2003), Shaunzinski Gortman (first round, 2002) and Teresa Geter (third round, 2002) on the list of Gamecocks drafted into the WNBA.
“I didn’t know where I would go, how long it would take for me to go. I came in with the mindset of, I was just going to be waiting to hear my name called. I was going to be thankful that my name was going to be called,” said Welch, one of 12 prospects invited to the draft by the WNBA.
“No matter if it was pick one, pick 10, pick 20, pick 22 — once you get picked, it’s about how hard you’re willing to work. It’s about what you can bring to a team, it’s about what you can do to make a team. So I put it in the back of my head as far as not worrying about where I was picked, and worried about the fact that I was picked, and that somebody saw potential in me.”
A 6-foot forward, Welch averaged 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds as a senior, and her field goal percentage of .577 ranks as the best in school history. One of just four Gamecocks to finish their career with over 1,000 points and 900 rebounds, she helped South Carolina reach four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, culminating with the program’s first Final Four trip this past season.
But her contributions at USC were much greater than her numbers. As the first high school player of the year to sign with South Carolina in more than a decade, she set a precedent which helped head coach Dawn Staley’s program dominate the Palmetto State in recruiting. And her leadership and work ethic off the floor helped set a standard for her teammates to follow.
Chicago went 15-19 last season, finishing sixth in the WNBA’s Eastern Conference. Sky head coach Pokey Chatman “told me she liked my game, and the hard work that I brought to the table, and my motor and stuff like that,” Welch said. “Anytime somebody tells you they’re a fan of what you bring to the table, it definitely gives you some confidence about yourself, and it definitely reassures you for why they chose you to be in this position.”
The WNBA season opens June 5, but for Welch first comes training camp — which begins May 17 — and making the team.
“It’s on me as far as what I’m willing to do and the work I’m willing to put in this next month in order to get myself prepared,” she said. “And right now for me, honestly, I’m just enjoying the moment, enjoying the fact that I’ve been selected in the WNBA draft. But it’s just a matter of getting to work, getting myself physically and mentally prepared for a complete new level of basketball, and I’m ready for that.”