Game days had a different vibe for Aarion McDonald last season, and it wasn’t a good one.
Some things felt normal, like the early-morning lifts, pre-game meals and shootarounds.
But then came the part she dreaded: the emptiness she felt when she had to plop on the bench and watch the Arizona Wildcats take the court — and usually struggle — without her.
The McDonald-less Wildcats scuffled to a 6-24 record, winning just two games in the Pac-12.
“That was really difficult, just sitting on the bench knowing that (I) could have an effect on the court,” she said. “This year it will be different.”
Fast forward to this fall, and the Washington transfer is now eligible to play for the Wildcats, who are expecting to be much-improved thanks to an influx of talent.
McDonald is the centerpiece of it all. Arizona coach Adia Barnes said the redshirt sophomore will be one of the best point guards in the Pac-12.
“Not only because she is a great player, but because she’s a great person,” Barnes said. “She just changes so many things that you do. She’s fast, athletic, extremely gifted, all those things, I think anybody would want to coach her.”
Barnes has wanted to for a long time. She recruited McDonald to UW when she was an assistant there, and was bummed that leaving for Arizona meant losing a chance to mentor the talented guard.
Or so she thought.
Then-UW head coach Mike Neighbors left for Arkansas after the 2016-17 campaign, prompting McDonald to look for a new school to continue her collegiate career.
Arizona was a no-brainer. It’s in the Pac-12, it's closer to her hometown of Fresno and, most importantly, coached by Barnes.
“I’ve known Adia since my sophomore and junior year of high school,” McDonald said. “I really emphasized having a relationship with my coach and Coach Barnes was definitely a person I was close with in the recruiting process, so I felt like there was no love lost and I would still have that same connection here.”
Landing McDonald was a massive boost to the Wildcats’ ongoing rebuild, which is in year three of what Barnes estimates will be a five- or six-year process.
McDonald was a Pac-12 All-Freshman in her lone season at Washington where she was the third-leading scorer on a Sweet 16 team that featured two All-Americans in Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor.
Barnes said McDonald’s past success in the Pac-12 will help Arizona immensely since it has a young roster that’s still learning how to win.
“She knows what to expect. She’s not going to be punched in the face from day one,” Barnes said. “Also, she’s played with one of the best players in the country. Kelsey Plum is the ultimate competitor, works really hard. (McDonald) was able to see that and that also makes her a better player, because she can bring that here.”
And a whole lot more.
Barnes said McDonald changes every aspect of the game for the Wildcats. Offensively, the lightning-quick guard is adept at getting to the rim and creating shots for her teammates.
With her running the show, Arizona plans to deploy an up-tempo offense.
“I have full trust in her no matter what we’re doing,” said UA sophomore Sam Thomas.
Shooting isn’t McDonald’s strength — she shot 33 percent from behind the arc at Washington — but she still represents an upgrade at the 3-point line, where Arizona made just 31 percent of its attempts last season, near the bottom in the Pac-12.
“She shoots the 3 well,” Barnes said of the left-handed guard. “She doesn’t look to do that — that’s not innately her instinct — but she can do that and she needs to do that. But she can get to the rim against anybody.”
McDonald also provides something Arizona did not have last season: a second point guard. The Wildcats had to lean heavily on Lucía Alonso, who averaged 36 minutes and wore down considerably as games went on, the offense often suffering as a result.
Now, Alonso can share those responsibilities with McDonald, always giving UA fresh legs at the position. And when the two share the court, which they plan to do often, Alonso will have better opportunities to showcase her jump shot.
“It’s cool because she can bring the ball up and I’m just in the corner and she always finds me,” said Alonso, who made 39 percent of her 3s last season.
Defensively, McDonald describes herself as “real tenacious.” Barnes said McDonald’s athleticism makes her a disruptive defender and someone who can hound ball-handlers the entire distance of the court — yet another thing the Wildcats were incapable of last season.
“She makes plays on the ball,” Barnes said. “That’s one reason we’re going to be more aggressive this year.”
Arizona witnessed McDonald’s tenacity in practice all of last season. She and fellow transfers Tee Tee Starks and Dominique McBryde suited up for the scout team and prided themselves on making life difficult for the starters.
“We were just as good,” McDonald said. “They had trouble with us.”
But it benefitted everyone, including McDonald, who focused on honing her shooting and leadership skills.
“I feel like I’ve accomplished most of that,” she said. “I still have to become more vocal.”
And while watching games from the side wasn’t easy — or fun — it was a valuable learning experience, nonetheless.
“I would say offensively I’ve grown so much,” McDonald said. “Sitting out a year, it made me see things that coaches see.”
“Body language and attitudes,” Barnes said. “All of those things make you better and I think she improved a lot last year.”
The Wildcats hope the same is true for their team as a whole, but McDonald’s goal is simply to help them be competitive. That seems modest, but consider that Arizona has not finished higher than 10th in the Pac-12 since 2010-11.
“I know we’re young, but that’s not an excuse,” McDonald said. “So just to compete, make it hard for teams to play us (is my goal).”
Just like when she starred on the scout team.
“She would go against us, so now to have her on our team is awesome,” Thomas said. “I feel like she can score whenever she wants to. She makes everyone around her better. It’s insane.”