Aari McDonald‘s decision to skip the WNBA Draft and return for her senior season was not an easy one. It was, in her words, “probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make.”
And at one point she was ready to leave Arizona behind.
“My heart was set out for declaring for the draft,” McDonald said Wednesday. “... I wanted to test the waters and I want to hear my name called alongside the other great players in the nation, and I thought I was ready.”
Her voice tailed off.
“But I think that things work out in a way.”
What caused her to reconsider? Two unforeseen, almost unbelievable, circumstances.
The first: Arizona not getting to finish its historic season with its first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 15 years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event was canceled for the first time in its history.
“Yeah, that was definitely a big factor,” McDonald said. “It left a bad taste in my mouth. Being the competitor that I am, I just didn’t like how things ended.”
The second: a stress fracture that McDonald suffered in the penultimate week of the regular season. The leg injury forced her to miss a couple games—the first two games she has ever missed at Arizona—then play through pain the rest of the way.
And with the WNBA Draft set for April 17, the thought of declaring with a bum leg was unsettling.
“I don’t want to go to any situation being not 100 percent, and so I thought about just resting my leg,” McDonald said.
Then she weighed the other benefits of returning to Arizona. There were quite a few, more than the WNBA and a $60,000 salary could top.
“There was, first and foremost, getting my master’s (degree). My parents and I value that a lot,” McDonald said. “Sharpening my game, making sure I come back with no weaknesses, and, third, setting myself up for a better future for next year to go higher in the draft, and just make lifelong memories with my team and just creating more history and taking this program somewhere it hasn’t been in a while or somewhere it hasn’t been ever.”
That was more or less what Adia Barnes pitched to McDonald, though the UA head coach was not a major factor in the decision.
Barnes expressed her opinion then backed off so McDonald could make the call on her own.
Barnes wasn’t sure which route McDonald would take. She conceded that McDonald probably would have declared for the WNBA Draft if not for the injury and shortened season, but obviously she is thrilled to welcome the All-American back.
“I wanted her to feel great about her decision, to feel happy, and to feel what was right in her heart,” Barnes said.
“And look where I’m at now,” McDonald smiled. “We’re back together for another year.”
McDonald has already amassed a long list of accolades in two seasons with the Wildcats, but there are still plenty more to be had.
She can break Barnes’ school scoring record by pouring in 752 more points (which Barnes would love to see her do) and replace Sabrina Ionescu as the face of Pac-12 basketball. That’s just the start.
But what really excites McDonald is her team’s potential. She believes the Wildcats can win a conference championship, make a deep run in March, and finish higher than the No. 7 preseason ranking ESPN recently awarded them.
Not only is Arizona’s floor general back for another year, so are Cate Reese and Sam Thomas, its second- and third-leading scorers. It will be their third season together. Their win total has increased each year.
And as McDonald said when she announced her return, “the best is yet to come.”
“The amount of time we have to get better, I think that’s one of the biggest pros” of returning, McDonald said. “And we have Shaina (Pellington) coming in, Lauren (Ware) gives us height and she’s looking like a true post. We have Derin (Erdogan) coming in. We’re looking scary next year, and I think we can be higher than seven.”
But, first, McDonald has to heal. Doctors advised her to rest her leg for four to six weeks, though she plans to take eight weeks off just to be safe. Then she will begin cardio workouts and start putting pressure on her leg.
McDonald isn’t even sure how she injured it. All of a sudden she felt an unusual pain and knew something was up.
“Coming back had more pros,” McDonald said. “I just went with my heart. I talked to my parents, my fiancé, and I prayed about it, and I think that I made the right decision. I’m at peace with it.”