There have been better Centers at UCLA but how many have worked as hard and represented the four letters as well as Thomas Welsh? The stories are well known now but after every practice Welsh shakes the coaches’ hands and asks them what else he can do. I would argue that Welsh is the epitome of this John Wooden axiom:
“Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
Has there ever been a player that has come closer to become his best then Welsh? No one has worked harder.
As we think about all Thomas Welsh has meant to UCLA, let’s look back at where he has come from.
Thomas came to UCLA as a skinny set shooter. Not exactly what you are looking for in your Center of the future. He was pushed around in his first exhibition game and in his first four PAC 12 games he went 3-12. In his first career start for an injured Tony Parker, on the road against Oregon, he went 2-8 with 6 rebounds in 28 minutes as Oregon ran over UCLA shooting 63%. The game famously caused Norman Powell to give his “we need to play defense speech” that led UCLA to the NCAA tournament that year.
But Welsh kept working in the time between his freshman and sophomore years. He made the national under-19 team after failing the year before.
And then in his sophomore year, he had his breakout game at arguably the best possible time. The year before UCLA had not only been beaten by Kentucky, they had been demolished. It was probably the most embarrassing loss in UCLA basketball history in which UCLA only scored 7 in the first half. The next year in the rematch Kentucky was ranked number one again and UCLA was in the middle of what would become a losing season. Yet UCLA beat Kentucky behind Welsh. As I wrote in my post about eating crow on the game, only one player’s play was shocking:
That player was Thomas Welsh. To be clear even that outside-the-box great game was only on one side of the court. Thomas shooting 8-11 is not that shocking. He did it on the jumpers that are his specialty. We have seen this before; most recently in our second best win, against UNLV.
However, what was shocking was the best big for EITHER TEAM in the game was Thomas Welsh. Welsh owned the paint. He had only his second career double figure rebound game and HIS CAREER HIGH IN REBOUNDS. He out-MUSCLED Kentucky’s bigs! He owned the paint. Even when he did not get the rebound, he kept Kentucky’s bigs off the board.
Welsh had arrived. He had not just hit shots. He was the best Center in a game. And not just any game but against Kentucky. Welsh proved that he was not soft or just a skinny shooter who was going to get out-muscled by more athletic bigs.
By the end of that disastrous season, Welsh again showed his class. Steve Alford realized he had made a mistake starting two Centers in Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh. By the end of the season Welsh was outplaying Parker, so Alford announced Welsh would start when we went to the more conventional one Center lineup. Welsh though went to Alford and said it would mean more for the Senior Parker to start in his last games at UCLA. He suggested Parker still start and he would come off the bench. How many kids say that? At any level. In any sport.
Then came Lonzo Ball and UCLA’s 31 win season. In the nation’s best offense last season, Welsh was sort of a forgotten man. Despite starting Welsh was only sixth in shot attempts. But there was something interesting going on as evidenced by some of Bill Walton babblings. Bill Walton would regularly say the best shooter on the team was Thomas Welsh. His broadcasting partners would scoff at this but a prime example was Welsh shooting 59% from the field and a team leading 89% from the free throw line. Welsh led UCLA in blocks and Defense rebounds as well. In a way he was a key defender. One of the reasons we lost to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament was Welsh was limited to 18 minutes before fouling out.
Welsh had come a long way from the kid who was pushed around in an Oregon game.
And now to this season, you have seen one of the rarest sights in basketball, a Center selected to shoot technical free throws. More importantly, after three years in the program, Welsh is still working on getting better. He added three point shooting to his game. Welsh has improved his post-game as well. Welsh is on track to become the first player since Kevin Love to average a double-double in a season. Welsh has even shown the ability to take over a game as he did for spells in the Michigan game. But I will just choose one game to highlight where Welsh hit the game winner and made the key free throws . . . against Southern Cal . . . on his Birthday:
UCLA inched ahead with a 3-pointer from Thomas Welsh with 52 seconds left. After draining the shot, Welsh extended his arms, begging for cheers from the sell-out crowd. The senior who celebrated his 22nd birthday Saturday then hit the clinching pair of free throws with 10 seconds left before Jordan Usher’s last-gasp 3-pointer fell off the mark.
Welsh should not have to beg this Saturday for the crowd to cheer on Senior Day at Pauley. Thomas Welsh is certainly not the best Center in UCLA history but he may be classiest and hardest working. He is a great representative of the four letters.
Thank you Thomas.
Please note in your comments in the thread below focus on Thomas Welsh. It would be great if you could tell a favorite memory, etc. But in any case, all comments for this post should be in appreciation of Thomas. He has earned it.