April 23, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Frank Sinatra crooned about Chicago being "My Kind of Town," and South Carolina senior Aleighsa Welch is ready to get established there as well after being selected by the Chicago Sky in the second round of the 2015 WNBA draft. As the fifth Gamecock all-time to be drafted by the women's professional basketball league, and the first during head coach Dawn Staley's tenure at South Carolina, Welch is doing all that she can to make the most of a childhood dream.
"It means a lot because it's a dream come true for me," Welch said. "This is what I always wanted, and to be able to live it is really hard to describe. I'm looking forward to playing with and against everybody in the league. It's a blessing to be able to play with people like (Chicago teammates) Elena Delle Donne and Cappie Pondexter. Who wouldn't want that? Just look at the star-power in the WNBA. You're going against Sklyar Diggins, Angel McCoughtry, Candace Parker, and the list just goes on and on. You're going up against some players that you grew up idolizing, and now they're your competition."
Welch dove into the process of transitioning from student-athlete to professional athlete at a league sponsored two-day orientation prior to the draft.
"There were a lot of seminars to help get us prepared," Welch said. "It involved everything from how to act and carry yourself, social media, and etiquette. We went through things such as insurance to make sure you are setting yourself up with a 401K and things like that. We had a player panel consisting of Tamika Catchings, Jayne Appel, Skylar Diggins and Chiney Ogwumike, where we could ask them anything about adjusting to life in the league. We talked a lot about branding and how to put yourself out there. We learned to not take things personally. You could go from being on a team and before the game you could get traded."
The player panel at orientation also focused on the adjustment from being a senior to becoming a newcomer all over again.
"I'm coming from being someone who was a vocal leader in college, to being a rookie," Welch said. "So that was one of the questions I had for the panel in terms of how I do that without stepping on someone's toes. They told me to just be myself. They will never frown upon someone who is willing to work hard and has positive things to say, as long as you can take some criticism as well. The player panel was the biggest thing that I thought helped in trying to get ready."
Similar to her experience at South Carolina, there is a high level of personal responsibility for players in the WNBA with a lot at stake for actions on and off the court.
"The biggest challenge will be the independence part," Welch said. "You don't have everything taken care of by somebody else. You have to be on top of everything. It's a matter of doing the right things the right way, even when you think nobody is watching. I'm looking forward to the experience. I'm looking forward to my first practice and playing in a new city."
It makes me proud to be able to say that this was something I was able to be a part of. I'll tell Coach Staley that we're bonded for life because I was a part of a lot of her 'firsts.' I feel like I'm forever in debt to her for what she has been able to do for me.
Welch completed her career at South Carolina as the program's top career offensive rebounder and one of just four Gamecocks all-time to record at least 1,000 points and 900 rebounds in her career. She was a three-time All-SEC selection, including first-team honors in 2014 and 2015, and was the 2015 SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Welch helped lead the Gamecocks to the NCAA Tournament all four years of her career, including the program's first two SEC Championships in her junior and senior seasons, along with the program's first ever SEC Tournament title in 2015, and capping her career with South Carolina's first ever trip to the NCAA Final Four with a school record 34 victories.
"My whole career has been a career full of firsts with Coach Staley," Welch said. "When I'm able to look back 10 or 20 years from now, it will be sort of a keepsake for me. It makes me proud to be able to say that this was something I was able to be a part of. I'll tell Coach Staley that we're bonded for life because I was a part of a lot of her 'firsts.' I feel like I'm forever in debt to her for what she has been able to do for me. I'm very appreciative of it."
Staley noted that one of the attributes that makes Welch so successful is her unselfishness.
"Aleighsa Welch is probably the ultimate teammate," Staley said. "She is one who would sacrifice her own personal goals for the betterment of the team, but when big games are on the line, she seems to find her way at the very top. Whether it's rebounding in traffic, whether it's hitting a timely midrange shot or playing with her back to the basket, she always finds a way to make the biggest impact when the game is at the highest stake."
Despite a career filled with pressure packed situations, Welch admitted to being nervous at the draft.
"To finally hear my name called was a sigh of relief and just happiness to know that all of my hard work has paid off to this point," Welch said. "My biggest thing was just trying to stay in the moment and not getting caught up in whose name was getting called before mine. I was just enjoying the fact that I was at the 2015 WNBA Draft."
Welch has not been to Chicago yet, but with South Carolina assistant coach Darius Taylor hailing from the area, she feels like she'll have plenty of tips for where to go when she reaches the "Windy City." Having moved around several times as a child with her mother serving in the military, Welch is confident she will adapt to her new surroundings.
"I heard that it's cold there," Welch laughed. "So that's why I'm glad the season runs through the summer time."
Welch will walk at graduation on May 9 and will head out to Chicago three days later to start her professional career as training camp begins on May 17.
"I've got a couple of weeks to get myself prepared," Welch said. "It means the world to me to be able to walk across the stage and get my degree. The academic side is just as important as the athletics side of it for me. I spoke to (Chicago Sky) Coach (Pokey) Chatman, and she knew that was something that was important to me."
While she earned numerous honors during her collegiate playing career, Welch knows she will have to improve several areas of her game, including ball handling and free throw shooting. Maintaining her intensity as a rebounder is also a priority.
"What makes Aleighsa special is her work ethic, energy on the boards and willingness to do the non-stat categories like hustle, box out, run the floor hard, guard her player and not get involved in rotations and/or switches," said women's basketball television analyst Debbie Antonelli. "She will get noticed for those things and I believe that is why Pokey drafted her."
While leadership will always be attached to her name for her career at South Carolina, she hopes fans will remember her simply as someone who always worked hard.
"I want people to remember me as someone who was willing to give it my all every single time I walked on to the court," Welch said. "I want to be remembered as someone who cared. I love our fans, and I will always love our fans. When I come back for a game, I'm still going to adore them."
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