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Aari McDonald not surprised by torrid start to Arizona career

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Adia Barnes pulled Aari McDonald aside after practice on Wednesday to inform her that she had been named the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25.

The Arizona point guard didn’t think much of it at the time.

“I was just like, ‘Oh OK,’” McDonald said. “And then when I got home and I was talking to my parents I was like ‘dang.’ It really hit me. It feels good just to be on this list, knowing I’m with a lot of the nation’s best players. It’s just a blessing.”

As the nomination indicates, McDonald has emerged as one of the top players in the country. The redshirt sophomore is second in the nation in scoring, averaging 25.4 points per game to go along with 6.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.6 steals, displaying a dynamic, well-rounded game.

McDonald has been the Pac-12 Player of the Week three times already, and just became the first player in UA history to tally back-to-back 30-point games.

Barnes believed McDonald would do special things at Arizona when she convinced her to transfer from Washington in the summer of 2017, but not to this extent.

“I knew she’d be dominant. I didn’t think she’d be leading the country in scoring,” the UA coach said. “But I thought she could for sure average 18 to 20 points a game. I knew she’s a great rebounder. I mean, it’s why we recruited her at Washington, and I knew she could score. She could score in high school, that’s who she is and I know that you can’t teach quickness.”

Unlike her coach, nothing has surprised McDonald about her torrid start to her UA career.

“No, and I’m not trying to be cocky,” she said. “I worked my butt off last year and in the offseason and summer, so it’s good to see the results showing and paying off.”

Besides, McDonald isn’t even living up to her own expectations, as crazy as that sounds. Back in October she told folks at Pac-12 Media Day that she wanted to average six steals per game, more than double what she is averaging now.

“I will definitely say I’ve taken plays off on the defensive end,” McDonald said. “I’m not proud of it, but I feel like I do a lot of other things and I kind of get tired. But that’s no excuse. My defense has definitely picked up... in Pac-12 (play).”

McDonald thinks she can swipe enough steals in the second half of the season to reach her magic number. Barnes isn’t so sure — “six steals is a lot,” she joked — but believes the sophomore still has plenty of room to grow and the work ethic to fulfill it.

“She will get better and I think you’ll see a much different Aari even next year,” Barnes said. “So watch out, Pac-12.”

She still has three years to reach her potential, but the Pac-12 is already getting a taste of what the McDonald-led Wildcats can do. Arizona has raced out to a 12-2 start, including a 2-1 mark in conference, putting it on pace for its first winning season since 2010-11 and maybe even its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005.

And while McDonald is not wowed by individual accolades, she knows what being named to something like the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 means for the program as a whole.

“Our program hasn’t been talked about like this in years,” she said. “So it definitely feels good and it lets people know that we’re heading in the right direction.”