When you have a season like the one Aari McDonald had, the spotlight follows.
After breaking Arizona’s single-season scoring record, the redshirt junior point guard was named one of the top 12 prospects in the 2020 WNBA Draft by WNBA.com.
McDonald said Wednesday that it is “an honor” to be in that group, though she was not surprised to see her name included.
“I’m not trying to be cocky, but yeah,” she said when asked if she thought she’d ever be on such a list. “But that’s not my main focus.”
McDonald has her sights on leading Arizona to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005. She will spearhead a team that returns its entire starting lineup and adds a bevy of intriguing international prospects along with Penn State graduate transfer Amari Carter.
Arizona garnered a lot of attention on its way to a WNIT championship last season, but head coach Adia Barnes said a repeat would be a disappointment.
“We have bigger plans, bigger goals, bigger objectives,” she said. “Our goal is we want to be a tournament team.”
Thanks to the influx of talent, Barnes does not expect McDonald to replicate the 24.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.6 assists she averaged last season, when she often single-handedly carried the Wildcats to wins.
McDonald finished the season as the third-leading scorer in the nation and scored the fourth-most points in Pac-12 history (890).
“Her numbers, as we get better, they should go down a little bit because so much responsibility isn’t on her shoulders,” Barnes said. “But I think she’ll have more help. And we’re a better shooting team this year. Hopefully, that will show on the court. We also have more size, we have more depth inside and on the perimeter.”
Besides, McDonald won’t have the same workload she did last season, when she averaged 36 minutes per game and took a pounding on a nightly basis as she slashed to the rim, ranking second in the Pac-12 in free throw attempts per game.
“That’s gonna help a lot,” McDonald said. “First, it won’t be so hard on my body. It won’t be bruised up and sore...and I think that will help me be even more efficient this year.”
McDonald hopes to cut down on her turnovers and be more consistent with her shooting at all three levels. She averaged 3.8 turnovers per game last season and shot 28 percent from 3 and 76 percent from the free-throw line.
“Especially the last couple weeks, we’ve been on like the same teams (in practice) and her shot has gotten so much better,” said sophomore forward Cate Reese. “Like her 3-point shot is way more consistent. And I see her really working after practice, getting up 3s with Coach Salvo (Coppa). So I mean, she’s been really working on studying up, her communication has gotten a lot better, she’s just become a stronger leader for us.”
Barnes said McDonald is more vocal this year, but still mostly leads by example. She is quiet by nature.
“Aari has been great for us,” Barnes said. “Aari is someone everybody respects, someone that everybody looks to lead. So it’s not always by her talking, it’s by her actions, and she plays with so much heart. And I don’t think you can teach that. And she’s the ultimate competitor.”
It should continue to rub off on her teammates, including Oklahoma transfer Shaina Pellington, a one-time Big 12 Freshman of the Year and member of the Canadian National Team who joined the Wildcats this summer.
Pellington has to sit out the 2019-20 season due to NCAA rules, but is a big part of Arizona’s future.
“They’re going to go at it every day,” Barnes said. “Shaina’s an athlete that can stick with Aari at times. And so I think it’s going to make Aari better, and I think it’s gonna make Shaina better every single day. So I’m really excited to see that because it’s awesome to see in practice. We’ve had more competitive practices these couple practices than we did the whole year last year. And so I’m excited because I think that makes the games easier.”
Another thing working in McDonald’s favor? That she was cut from Team USA’s Pan American Games roster in May.
“It was an eye-opener, definitely,” McDonald said. “I went down there, competed. Obviously I didn’t make it, but that is some fuel to the fire this season, so no biggie.”
If McDonald turns in another stellar season, she will have a big decision to make next spring. She can either enter the WNBA Draft or return to Arizona for her redshirt senior season.
The upside to declaring is obvious. McDonald could get a head start on her pro career and begin collecting a paycheck, even if it would pale in comparison to her NBA counterpart. First-round picks in the 2019 WNBA Draft earned anywhere from $44,000 to $53,000 this season (not including endorsements).
Returning to school is an appealing option, too. Barnes said McDonald can boost her draft stock, continue building the UA program, be an All-American and the best guard in the Pac-12—all while earning a master’s degree.
“So financially, it would be even more beneficial to wait a year,” Barnes said.
But as well-rehearsed as Barnes’ pitch sounds, she hasn’t delivered it to McDonald yet. They have an NCAA Tournament run to make first.
“It’s not something we talk about, it’s something she could think about later,” Barnes said. “But I mean, it’s a pretty good situation a year from now.”