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‘Total-package kid’: How Aari McDonald lifted Arizona women’s basketball into national prominence

total-package-kid-how-aari-mcdonald-has-transformed-arizona-since-transferring-from-washington Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Arizona Wildcats beat the Washington Huskies on Sunday, it was a great reminder of the impact one player can make on a program.

Ever since Aari McDonald transferred from UW, the Huskies have been a bottom-feeder in the Pac-12. Washington won more games in McDonald’s freshman season (29) than it has in the last three seasons combined (28).

Arizona used to be a bottom-feeder but has become a top-20 team in the country with McDonald running the point.

The Wildcats went 6-24 the year McDonald sat out due to NCAA transfer rules, but are 39-16 since then, compiling an impressive list of exploits that includes but is not limited to...

  • a WNIT championship
  • their first Top 25 ranking since 2004
  • their first winning season and postseason appearance since 2010-11
  • their first-ever 11-0 start
  • their first win at Arizona State since 2000
  • their first All-American since 2012
  • signing two five-star recruits (Cate Reese and Lauren Ware)

McDonald was the No. 1 factor in all of that. Yes, even that last bullet point.

“She’s been kind of the avalanche that started all of our other recruiting,” said Arizona head coach and former UW assistant Adia Barnes, who lured McDonald to UW then UA. “She’s such a gifted player and I don’t think players like her come around that often. I mean, I told her during that process when she was transferring, ‘come here and build something special with me.’ And she’s done that and she’s done a tremendous job. ... She would have impacted Washington the same way.”

And here’s how McDonald has done it.

Record-setting scoring

McDonald has scored at a historic level at Arizona. In 2018-19, the lightning-quick guard broke UA’s single-season scoring record by pouring in 890 points. She finished as the nation’s third-leading scorer at 24.1 points per game, the highest scoring average in UA history.

The Fresno native also shattered Arizona’s single-game scoring record this season, when she dropped 44 points in a win at Texas. No UA player had even scored 40 before.

McDonald has done that despite opponents going to drastic measures to curtail her, like playing soft zone and packing the paint with 10 arms and legs.

Somehow, the 5-foot-6 McDonald still finds a way to get to the rim and finish over—or under—bigger defenders.

And if she’s not doing that, she’s probably at the free-throw line, where she has averaged 6.9 foul shots per game as a Wildcat, converting 76 percent of them.

“I don’t know anybody in the country that can guard her one on one,” Barnes said. “(I don’t know) anybody with her quickness with the ball.”

Perhaps the craziest stat is that McDonald has scored in double figures in every game of her UA career. That’s 55 and counting.

Her scoring average has dropped to 20.3 PPG in her second season in the program, but that can be attributed to her playing fewer minutes and taking fewer shots, the result of a stronger supporting cast. Her efficiency has more or less been the same.

And even though McDonald is more of a combo guard than a true point guard, she has averaged 4.3 assists per game as a Wildcat, once dishing out 14 in a game.

Last season, McDonald joined former UW teammate and former No. 1 overall draft pick Kelsey Plum as the only player in Pac-12 history to record 800 points and 150 assists in a season.

“It’s really nice. It makes my job a lot easier,” said junior forward Sam Thomas. “I can either watch her go score hers, or I just have to stand there waiting for the ball, because I don’t have to do much. She’s good at distributing and drawing the defense towards her.”

To give you an even better idea of how much the Wildcats rely on McDonald, she had the third-highest usage rate in the country as a sophomore and currently has the fourth-highest usage rate as a junior.

The Wildcats were 339th in offensive rating in 2017-18, the season McDonald sat out due to NCAA transfer rules, but have ranked 76th and 46th in the seasons she has run the show.

If there are any flaws in her game it is her 3-point shooting and, occasionally, her turnovers. McDonald has only made 27 percent of her 3s at the UA, a number that Barnes says is deceiving.

“She rarely gets a wide-open, one-two step 3,” Barnes said. “When people make her shoot 3s, she’s got to go off a pick-and-roll, she’s got to go back and then take a stepback 3. Those are hard shots. ... If we had another Aari on the team, I think Aari would be a 35-percent 3-point shooter because she’d get (easy) shots.”

Barnes laughed: “Aari creates those shots. She never is the recipient of them.”

Tone-setting defense

A lot of players can score at a high level. But what makes McDonald so special, Barnes said, is the way she pairs it with dominant defense.

McDonald was a member of the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team last season, averaging 2.6 steals and 6.3 rebounds per contest, numbers she is replicating this season.

Perpetually pestering opposing point guards, McDonald is the linchpin of an Arizona defense that currently ranks No. 3 in the country in efficiency and No. 9 in steal rate. McDonald regularly plays 35-plus minutes per game but her intensity rarely wavers.

“She’s just super aggressive on defense, like pressing up the floor, which is not always easy, especially when the games get kind of long,” said sophomore Cate Reese. “So...she sets the pace of our defense.”

And its grit. McDonald is willing to put her body on the line and scrap for loose balls, a do-or-die mentality that rubs off on her teammates.

“Aari is not afraid,” Barnes said. “Aari’s on the floor a lot, so she plays hard. Like after games, she’s pretty beat up. But that’s who she is and that’s what I love about her. She’s not afraid. She’ll go and guard posts, she’ll dive for balls and great players don’t usually do that.”

Adding McDonald allowed Barnes to completely overhaul Arizona’s schemes. The Wildcats now run a system that isn’t all that different from the 40 Minutes of Hell approach that made the Arkansas men’s team a force in the 1990s.

Arizona’s rabid press defense then fuels its dizzying transition offense, creating an uptempo brand of basketball that has not only led to wins but also record-setting crowds.

“Aari just changes a lot of things,” Barnes said. “She’s one of the best rebounders at her size in the country. She gets in there amongst the trees. That’s why I let her offensive rebound a lot. And I also do that because then she’s right there and she stops the ball. So it’s really hard for teams to play against. If we didn’t have a fast point guard, we probably wouldn’t be able to do a lot of presses we do. I’m someone who is going to play to the personnel we have. Now, obviously I like the style we’re playing, so now I’m trying to recruit players with her athleticism.”


“I don’t know if I’ll find another Aari,” Barnes said.

Quiet (but getting louder) leadership

McDonald is one of Arizona’s hardest workers. She, after all, is the player who was spotted getting shots up in McKale Center at 6 a.m. before a big game vs. Oregon. (She made five 3s that day, by the way.)

But Barnes does not believe in leadership by example, so the way McDonald, who is reserved by nature, has learned to amplify her voice has helped Arizona become more cohesive on both ends.

“Because leadership, you have to get people to follow you,” Barnes said. “If you don’t say anything, they don’t follow you. So she’s gotten better in every way. More consistent in practice, bringing the level up... and then I think this season she’s learned how to be more comfortable in her space and the team respects her. So she may not say a ton but when she talks, you listen. So I think she’s growing that. Before, she probably wouldn’t talk ... that’s one reason why we’re better.”

Added Reese: “At the end of games, or even the beginning, she communicates more effectively on the plays we’re doing, what we need to do as a team. In breaks and timeouts, she communicates a lot, so it’s helpful.”

A new ceiling

McDonald still has a season and a half left at Arizona, assuming she passes on the WNBA Draft this spring. There is seemingly no limit to what she can accomplish before her career concludes.

Despite spending her freshman season at Washington, McDonald has a realistic, if not probable, chance of breaking Arizona’s all-time scoring record (held by Barnes) and the all-time steals record, and could finish as high as second on the all-time assists list.

As far as team accomplishments go, McDonald will undoubtedly have the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament this year, what will be their first appearance since 2005.

Arizona has only once made it to the Sweet Sixteen, but McDonald’s Wildcats, whether it’s this year or next, look plenty capable of advancing to that point—and maybe even further.

“I think we have a chance to do some special things. I think we have a chance to get some big upsets, I think we have a really good chance of going to the tournament,” Barnes said. “She wants to do that and I want this team to accomplish that. And she plays so hard, we want everybody to play as hard as her. ... I think it’s been showing in our big games, but I want her to just accomplish everything she can. I think for us, the more awards she gets, it’s better for our program. All the recognition, it’s good. This helps Arizona women’s basketball.

“And when it’s a great kid like Aari, who’s also great off the court, who had like a 3.0 (GPA) this semester...who’s a total-package kid, I want to promote that because that’s what this program is about. We don’t only have good players, we have good people and she’s one of those kids.”