Welch’s strengths at USC have Goose Creek product primed for move to WNBA

South Carolina's Aleighsa Welch was one of 12 prospects invited to attend Thursday night's WNBA draft in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

During her four seasons at South Carolina, Aleighsa Welch’s greatness was often found in the intangibles, like her ability to motivate teammates and lead by example. While those traits seem rooted in the college game, experts believe they’ll also help the Goose Creek product make the transition to the next level.

That’s where Welch is bound beginning Thursday, when the WNBA holds its annual draft at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Fresh off helping South Carolina reach the program’s first Final Four, the All-SEC forward and honorable mention All-America was one of 12 prospects invited to attend the draft, where Welch has a chance of being selected in the first round.

“I think any coach at any level will tell you that some of their time is spent trying to coach players into just playing, into being present, into bringing the type of energy that Aleighsa brings,” said LaChina Robinson, a former Wake Forest standout who is now an analyst for ESPN. “I think there’s something very special about a player that motivates themselves and the people around them, and you don’t have to do that for them.”

The 12 teams in the WNBA will conduct the opening round of the draft beginning at 7 p.m. on ESPN2, with the second and third rounds starting at 8 p.m. and broadcast online through ESPN3. The 6-foot Welch averaged 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds as a senior, and her field goal percentage of .577 was the best in school history. But as her time at South Carolina proved, she brings much more to the court than just statistics.

“I’m a big fan of Aleighsa Welch, and first and foremost it’s because of her motor. The energy that she plays with, she is high-energy, extremely competitive. She’s an undersized post player but can rebound with the biggest of players,” said ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck, a former Vanderbilt star who also was head coach at Purdue and Florida.

“I also like her leadership and the maturity that she exhibits, what she did with her South Carolina team. And that kind of maturity is extremely valuable when you go to the next level and play professionally, because you have to have accountability for yourself. You also have to be able to rally a team and have everybody understand their role and go out and compete night in, night out.”

Peck said Welch needs to improve on her free-throw shooting and scoring range outside the paint. “I think both of those two things are improvable or teachable,” she added, “but you can’t teach a work ethic like she has. And when that comes natural, that makes her a valuable player.”

Welch had been forecast as a late first-round selection, but could get pushed into the early second round because of the recent declarations of All-Americans Jewell Loyd of Notre Dame and Amanda Zahui B. of Minnesota — both juniors who are leaving school a year early, and could become the top two overall picks.

“I think we just added two game-changers to the draft list,” Robinson said. “I think everyone is going to be a step, or actually two steps, up from where they thought in terms of the quality of player that they can acquire.”

But that doesn’t change the perception of Welch, one of just four Gamecocks to reach 1,000 career points and 900 career rebounds, and who helped head coach Dawn Staley’s team reach the NCAA Tournament in each of her four years in Columbia.

“You have a quality player who is high in the draft to be selected,” said Fred Williams, head coach of the WNBA’s Tulsa franchise, which has the first pick of the second round. “I think she’s been a great leader for South Carolina and Dawn Staley and her program, and the kid has shown a lot of good tools. I think whoever gets her will get a fine athlete.”