Ashlyn Watkins On Her Development And How South Carolina Turned Their Biggest Question Into A Strength

When South Carolina’s season ended in the Final Four a year ago, no one was quite sure what the 2023-24 version of the Gamecocks would look like, including those still on the roster.

The senior-laden squad saw four of its top five scorers graduate, headlined by star center Aliyah Boston, who went No. 1 overall to the Indiana Fever and became the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year, and Zia Cooke, who led the team in scoring and was picked 10th overall by the Los Angeles Sparks. That left some major holes to fill for a suddenly very young team, and when they assembled for their first summer workouts, as Ashlyn Watkins explains, all the questions that were being asked externally existed internally, too.

“I think we all were just like, ‘What’s gonna happen next year? Who’s gonna be the new starting five? How are we going to play as a team?’,” Watkins told Dime over Zoom this week. “So, I think everybody just had those what if’s or those questions amongst ourselves. But, like, in our first summer workouts or our first summer practices, we saw the talent, right? We knew that the talent and the athletic ability and work ethic was there.

“So, I think we just had to put everything together, and we didn’t know how well it was gonna mesh, but it just ended up meshing real, real well. To be honest, I think we play as a team and I think we started playing as a team in the summer. We realized that every single one of us plays a part in winning and plays a part in winning by a lot, too. So I think we all were just like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ but us playin’ and the more we practiced together and the more we played together, we just all got really connected.”

The results speak for themselves. South Carolina enters their Sweet 16 matchup with Indiana a perfect 34-0, marking the second straight year they’ve gone undefeated through the regular season and SEC Tournament. It’s a remarkable achievement, particularly when you consider the roster turnover. To fill that void, the Gamecocks have not looked to force young players into a starring role too early, instead choosing to lean on their incredible depth to — as Watkins notes — play a true team game.

That’s not just talk, either, as it bears out when you watch the Gamecocks play. On any given night you could see a different player take the lead role on offense — they’ve had five different leading scorers in their last eight games — the flow of the game determines who takes over. They have six players averaging 9.5 points per game or more (Kamilla Cardoso, MiLaysia Fulwiley, Te-Hina Paopao, Chloe Kitts, Bree Hall, and Watkins), and take advantage of the fact that defenses are never quite sure who they should key in on. Some nights, it might be a Cardoso game inside, where they’ll feed their center in the paint if she has a favorable matchup. Another night might be for the backcourt, where their freshman phenom Fulwiley or senior transfer Paopao get rolling.

Even as the lead role changes many nights, the constant for the Gamecocks this season is that everyone gets their chance to contribute to winning, which Watkins notes makes this team so much fun.

“This group is really special,” Watkins says. “We don’t have to worry about playing a lot of minutes for one game or saving minutes for one game just to be prepared for the next. We don’t have to worry about that, because we have a lot of people that can play different positions. It is special for us, and I think it’s special for us because it’s fun. When everybody is scoring and defending, it’s just fun.”

Defense is where South Carolina particularly stands out. The team ranks first in opponent field goal percentage, with Watkins as one of the most impactful players on that end of the floor. The 6’3 forward is second on the team in blocks (2.4 per game) and rebounds (7.0 per game), and third in steals (1.3 per game) in just 20.3 minutes per game off the bench. Watkins shrugs off an initial question about her defensive skillset, insisting defense just comes naturally as her length allows her to get in passing lanes, disrupt dribbling if a players gets loose with their handle, and reject shots.

However, that underscores the work that goes into being a high-level defender. The tools and the effort are the necessary entry points to playing great defense, but we eventually got into the mental challenge of harnessing those to strike the right balance between being a physical presence and picking your spots to stay out of foul trouble and in position as a team defender.

“It’s really hard trying not to get a foul and just trying to play, like, good defense. It’s really hard,” Watkins explains. “You just got to be physical without trying to foul. You got to let them feel you, let them know that you’re there without them using that to their advantage and trying to go bump into you and go straight up and get a foul call. I think I struggled with that in the middle of a season. I got a lot of foul calls on me, and I think people would scout me and they would see that I play hard defense, so they would try to get me early foul trouble.

“And I think that’s something that I learned from watching film with the coaches and I learned that I have to just be patient, just go around, or just find different ways to defend. I mean, that just comes with discipline. I’m not saying that my team needs me, but I feel like they rely on me a little bit and I can’t get in early foul trouble. So that’s just something that I got to take internally and just be like, okay, I gotta be disciplined.”

As a team, Watkins says South Carolina’s commitment on the defensive end is what makes them stand out. It’s what they start working on in the offseason, with head coach Dawn Staley demanding a full 40 minutes of effort on that end of the floor each night. That is the thing that has made the Gamecocks a dominant program over the last decade, because the players have fully bought in to the idea that they have to play to their standard every night, regardless of their opponent — as evidenced by their first two wins in the Tournament being by a combined margin of 99 points.

“It starts with our coach. She basically installs that into us. If, like, we’re having a good game, but we’re also making a lot of mistakes, she wouldn’t hesitate to tell us and still yell at us,” Watkins says with a smile. “Even though we’re winning by a lot, she will still yell at us and be like, you need to do this better, or you need to do that better. Like, this is not our standard. So I think it starts with her and it just kind of rubs off on the team. And we just work as a team and we realized, like, we know the difference when we play bad and when we play our best. So I think that’s where it starts, with her.”

Getting that buy-in quickly was vital for South Carolina to pick up where they left off last year despite the roster turnover, but they also needed players like Watkins to develop into more complete players. While defense comes naturally, Watkins has been hard at work on her offensive skillset, which has allowed her to bump her scoring average up to 9.6 points per game from 4.9 points per game last year.

“I’ve been working on just connecting the dots and being a threat offensively and defensively,” she says. “So, I’ll get some extra work in and just work on spots that I’ll be in in different plays. And then that just built my confidence up. I’ll do it in practice and then I was like, ‘Okay, if I can do it in practice, then I can do it in the game.’ So I just started trying to do it in the game and that worked out well for me.”

What’s made that individual work pay off for Watkins is that it’s focused. It’s not just going into the gym and putting up shots, it’s working on specific things she’ll be asked to do in the game, which is something she’s learned is vital since arriving at South Carolina and thinks would be helpful for more young players to consider.

“A lot of NBA players — you know how people say that NBA players, they go to their shot? Like, they go to their spot. They shoot the shot that they want to shoot, and I think when you practice those shots, like how I said I’ll practice different spots that I’m supposed to be in, I think that’s the best way to work on specifically you,” Watkins explains. “You know that in this moment in the game, you’re going to be in this spot, so this really resembles what you did. And for NBA players, they’ll say, oh yeah, I shoot this shot in practice all the time. I work on this in practice, so it’s just gonna come easier for you in the game.”

Seeing that work pay off in games has given Watkins a confidence boost, which raises her overall game. She highlights that confidence when asked what she’s most proud of in her growth as a player, but also makes an insightful point about what makes this South Carolina team work so well.

“I’m proud of just my confidence, like, how confident I am in what I can do,” Watkins says. “I think my freshman year I didn’t get a lot of minutes, so I wasn’t really sure myself. I wasn’t really playing. I was just practicing. So I was just … I’m just there. But this year I think it’s more of a like, I feel like my team — not needs me, but I feel like I play a big part in what my team does and what my team needs. And so I took that as, oh, I’m gonna have to go get some extra work in, cause I know that my team needs me to do this and this and this.”

That last part of her quote offers a glimpse into how the Gamecocks have gotten to this point, with the team playing for each other and wanting to improve their individual games for their teammates. When I bring that up, she smiles and agrees that is what makes this particular group special. “That’s so true, yes,” Watkins says. “I think we all, every single one of us, feels that way too.”

As they look to make another run to the Final Four with aspirations of winning a national title, the Gamecocks will continue playing for each other and challenging themselves to play to their standard. The competition will continue to get tougher on that journey, but they rightfully believe that when they play their game to the best of their abilities, they can get the win no matter their opponent.

As such, they’ll keep the message the same, and let their SEC Tournament scare against Tennessee provide a reminder of why they can never let their standards slip.

“The message is don’t underestimate any team,” Watkins says about the focal point going into the Sweet 16. “We can’t take any team lightly, because everybody just gonna try to knock us down. Whoever we play, they’re gonna try to come in and knock us down. And we just can’t let that happen. We’ve learned that we don’t need to be in another predicament as like the semifinals in the SEC Tournament. We don’t want to be in that predicament ever again. We were lucky enough to win that game, but we didn’t like that feeling of almost losing.

“So I think we have that in the back of our minds — like, we don’t want to do that,” she continues. “We don’t want to be in that predicament. So we know what to do to not be in that predicament and we know what to do to not take teams lightly. We have to throw the first punch and come out at the bat just ready to go.”

South Carolina will take on Indiana on Friday night, with the game slated to tip off at 5 p.m. EST on ESPN.