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Aari McDonald’s play inspired by late grandfather: ‘Everything I do is just to glorify him’

The nation’s leading scorer is extra motivated this season

Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Aari McDonald is making up for lost time.

When the redshirt sophomore took the court on Nov. 9, it marked the first time in 585 days that she played in a game that counted. McDonald had to sit out the entire 2017-18 season after transferring in from Washington, an experience she said “hurt so much.”

But now she is back and unleashing all that pent-up frustration on opposing defenses. McDonald is the nation’s leading scorer through four games (29.5 PPG).

“I’m just glad I can show what I can do this year and I can show what I’ve improved on in the offseason,” she said.

That’s not all. McDonald became the Arizona Wildcats’ first Pac-12 Player of the Week since 2015, after she averaged 28.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.0 steals and 3.5 3s per game on 64 percent shooting in a pair of wins in the Bank of Hawaii Classic.

“She’s just so active and tenacious,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes. “She makes a huge difference on the defensive end and it sparks the offense. She’s our catalyst on both ends and what I love about is her she’s efficient right now and she’s so unselfish. She doesn’t have the mentality of ‘get mine’ she has the mentality of ‘I want to win and I’ll do whatever it takes.’ You’ll see her make awesome passes. She’ll draw four, five people where she has a layup and she’ll find Sam (Thomas) and Lucia (Alonso) with a wide-open shot. That’s just the ultimate team player.”

Barnes had high hopes for McDonald entering the season, believing she has what it takes to be an all-conference player, and the Fresno native has eclipsed even those lofty expectations — and still has room to improve.

“She’s been playing really good, she’s playing at a high level offensively and defensively, and she’s not even in her best shape yet,” Barnes said. “So I think she’ll even play better in the next three, four weeks.”

McDonald made the All-Freshman Team in her lone season at Washington, so she has been a force in the Pac-12 before. But now she is two years older, more seasoned, and more mature. Her sit-out year accelerated her development, Barnes said.

“She got better mentally and physically she got stronger, so I think this is the year I expected her to have,” she said. “Now, I didn’t expect her to lead the nation in scoring, but I expected her to be 27 points per game, because she’s that good.”

McDonald has upped her 3-point shooting percentage from 30 percent as a freshman to 33 percent as a redshirt sophomore, and has been red-hot at the rim, making 65 percent of her 2-pointers.

McDonald said she has been more vocal this season and a better decision-maker when operating in the pick-and-roll.

As for her uncanny ability to finish at the rim, well, that’s nothing new.

“I’ve always been really good at finishing,” she said. “I’ve been a little more efficient these last couple games, so I just have to keep being more efficient.”

The McDonald-led Wildcats are 3-1 so far, dropping a home game to Loyola Marymount. She had 39 points that night, tying UA’s single-game record.

Both Barnes and McDonald agreed that Arizona needs to be more balanced in its scoring, but sometimes McDonald has no choice but to carry the offense.

The Wildcats, a young team still trying to put the pieces together, have been prone to shooting struggles.

“I know my teammates feed off my energy,” McDonald said. “And I feel like when we’re in scoring slumps, I have to take on that role and score. Then I get my teammates involved.”

While McDonald’s strong start can partly be attributed to her making up for lost time, there is something else motivating her — her grandfather, Roger, who passed away last March.

The two had an inseparable bond.

“I am the youngest granddaughter on my mom’s side, and I’ve always been close to my grandfather. I’m close with grandmother as well, but my grandfather, that’s somebody who I went to for everything — advice, for help with homework, all that,” McDonald said.

McDonald described him as “a wise man, a godly man, just genuine and down to earth.” He was her biggest fan, too, aside from her parents.

“I remember in my freshman year at UW, he wanted to make it to the Pac-12 Tournament, but he had health issues, but he wanted to be there so bad,” she said.

“After he passed, it was really hard on my family and it was definitely hard on me because I was the youngest and I was really close to him. Ever since he passed, I’ve been trying to stay positive and think about him.”

That drive has developed into a quiet pre-game ritual. McDonald has a tattoo of her grandfather on her ankle, which she kisses after the national anthem.

Then, not so quietly, she torches defenses in his honor.

After McDonald scored 22 points in Arizona’s opener against Idaho State she tweeted, “my grandpa would have been so proud.”

After she dropped 39 points against LMU, she tweeted, “this is all for you grandpa.”

“Everything I do is just to glorify him,” McDonald said. “This year I’m playing for him. That’s my motivation. That makes me go hard everyday whether it’s practice or games. I’m playing hard for him because I know he would have loved to watch me play.”