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Arizona women’s basketball season review: Aari McDonald

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Arizona v Oregon Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats never got to complete their historic 2019-20 season. After setting one record after another and securing what was sure to be a chance to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the team saw its drive for a special ending to the year stopped in its tracks when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world in mid-March.

While we’ll never know what this team could have accomplished in the NCAA Tournament, a full regular season and conference tournament worth of competition is more than enough to assess each individual player’s performance.

We wind up this series with the All-American, Ann Meyers Drysdale Award winner, All-Pac-12, Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and general savior of the program.

Aari McDonald

  • Year: Junior
  • Height: 5-foot-6
  • Position: Guard
  • 2019-20 statistics: 29 GP, 29 GS, 34.0 MPG, 20.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.6 APG, 2.3 SPG, 45.8 FG%, 27.8 3FG%, 78.8 FT%

Season breakdown

It’s impossible to overestimate how important Aari McDonald has been to Arizona women’s basketball. While she is surrounded by some great players, she is the one who makes it all go. Whether she likes it or not, she’s also the face of the program and the one everyone wants a piece of.

McDonald hasn’t always been the most talkative player, but she started to find her voice both on the court and off it this season. Being a vocal leader was something she knew she needed to work on, and she did.

On the court, it was more of what fans saw her sophomore season. While she didn’t score quite as much, she still led the Pac-12 for the second straight season with 20.6 points per game. That placed her 10th in Division I after placing third in 2018-19. When the season came to an abrupt halt, McDonald had scored in double figures in 66 straight games—her entire Arizona career—giving her the longest active streak in the nation.

She wasn’t done setting records, either. After tying Davellyn Whyte for the best single-game scoring record her sophomore year, she came back and took the record outright this season. It was Arizona’s coming out party.

The Wildcats went into Austin and demolished Texas, which had been ranked for 77 straight weeks. McDonald scored 44 points, easily surpassing the 39 points she and Whyte had both scored to set the previous record.

Both the coaches and the media named McDonald Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and it wasn’t a fluke. Not only did she play pesky position defense but for the second straight year she led the conference in steals with 2.3 per game.

She did that while having one of the highest usage rates in the country, coming in fourth in Division I with a usage rate of 36.8 percent according to analytics service Her Hoop Stats. That was only slightly down from the 37.4 percent rate she had last year. which was third in Division I.

The only Power 5 player to have a higher rate was fellow junior Chennedy Carter who left Texas A&M for the WNBA this season. She edged McDonald out with a 37.2 usage rate.

McDonald’s stats—good or bad—have to be considered within the context of a usage rate that is almost twice that of an average NBA player. Her NBA equivalents in that regard are Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Luka Doncic—the three highest usage rates in the league for players who played most of the season.

If there were any criticisms of McDonald’s game, they could be found in two columns on the stat sheet: 3-point field goal percentage and turnovers. When the Wildcats finally return to the court, they will be areas she will be working to improve on.

While she tied for the most made 3-pointers on the team with 42, she did so while shooting just 27.8 percent from beyond the arc. That was even lower than the 28.1 she shot as a sophomore. She still had an effective field goal percentage of 50.3 because of her efficiency inside the arc. That placed her in the top 19 percent of eligible players according to Her Hoop Stats.

McDonald was in the top 15 percent of almost every stat available—except for turnovers. Her struggles to hold onto the ball placed her at 3,262 of 3,321 Division I players. While it’s understandable that she would have more turnovers than most players on her team simply because she had the ball in her hands so much, it still wasn’t anywhere near the number she or the Wildcats were looking for.

McDonald had 3.8 turnovers per game. Compared to just 3.6 assists, that wasn’t a recommendation for someone who is really a point guard regardless of what the awards say. At just 5-foot-6, she will definitely be a point guard at the next level, which puts pressure on her to clean up her game in that area.

Her assist numbers were down a full point compared to last year’s 4.6 APG while her turnovers were roughly the same, increasing just 0.1 per game over her previous season. The 1.24 assists she dished out for each turnover as a sophomore became just 0.9 assists-per-turnover as a junior.

On a per-40 basis, that put her slightly behind reserve point guard Lucia Alonso in assists with Alonso dishing out 4.6 and McDonald 4.5. The turnovers created the biggest gap between the two, though, with Alonso committing 2.9 per 40 minutes and McDonald committing 4.8. The rather glaring caveat was that Alonso didn’t present the scoring threat and wasn’t doing as much driving into the paint as McDonald.

The only other negative this season was the injury McDonald sustained late in the year. She missed two games and played down the stretch with a large brace on her leg. The diagnosis was a stress reaction, but it didn’t seem to slow her down when she was on the court. She still helped her team to a semifinal berth in the Pac-12 Tournament and had a 34-point performance against Oregon once they got there.

Best stretch of play

It’s difficult to leave out the Texas game where McDonald set the school record with 44 points, but the longest streak of great play against strong competition probably began with the trip to the Washington schools in mid January and ended with the domination of UCLA at the end of the month.

The stretch of four games included Washington State, Washington, Arizona State and UCLA. McDonald shot 43.5 percent over that stretch, going 30 of 69 from the field. That led to 23.8 PPG.

Her 7 of 22 makes from outside were well above her 3-point average for the season. In the big win over UCLA, she went 10 of 15 overall and 3 of 6 from outside the 3-point line. She added 28 of 35 hits from the charity stripe.

Her 33 rebounds worked out to 8.3 per game. She had a double-double against ASU and two games that fell just short of that with eight and nine rebounds to go along with double-digit scoring.

She added eight assists and eight steals over the course of those four games.

Once again, her Achilles heel was turnovers. She had a whopping 20 turnovers over this stretch, averaging out to five per game.

She would clean that up in the next game against Southern California. Although she didn’t shoot or rebound quite as well in that game as she had in the stretch leading up to it, she had eight assists and six steals while only turning the ball over twice.

Worst stretch of play

McDonald’s worst two games didn’t come against Pac-12 heavyweights. They came against UTEP and Tennessee State in early December.

Most glaring was that she turned the ball over seven times in each game to teams that she shouldn’t have struggled with.

She didn’t shoot especially well, either. In each game, she went 0 for 5 from 3-point distance, and it wasn’t much better from inside. Overall, she shot just 28.6 percent against UTEP and 33.3 percent against Tennessee State.

On the positive side, she did manage a double-double against Tennessee State by grabbing 12 rebounds and scoring 17 points. She also kept her double-digit scoring streak alive by scoring 13 against UTEP. It was a season low, which she hit four times this year.

Quotable

On Senior Day, when McDonald still hadn’t made her WNBA decision, head coach Adia Barnes spoke about their relationship going back to the recruiting days: “Aari, who I talked into coming here, came here and helped me build this program. I’ve known her since she was a sophomore in high school, and to watch her change and evolve and watch her game grow and watch her mature, it’s been awesome to watch and be a part of her journey. So she’s just special, a special player on both ends and she’s a really good kid who I love.”

What’s next?

After deciding to return for her senior season, McDonald will once again be one of the best players in the Pac-12 and the nation. If she is healthy, it’s difficult to name another player who could beat her as Pac-12 Player of the Year. The All-American accolades are also likely to come once again.

Most important, though, is getting her team to the tournament. After a probable three seed this season, it would not be a surprise to see Arizona climb to the two-seed line next year. McKale should finally get to host the women’s tournament with McDonald at the center of it all.

When the season is over, she should hear her name called in the top half of the first round of next April’s WNBA draft. While this year’s draft projections didn’t seem to know what to do with her, she was getting a lot of attention from teams with high picks this season. It would be a surprise if she wasn’t taken within the first three or four picks next year. She will undoubtedly be the highest pick Arizona has ever produced.

At some point, she’s also planning to marry fellow Wildcat and Fresno native Devon Brewer. The two got engaged just after Arizona’s loss to Oregon in their final game of the season.

Now, she and her teammates just have to wait for it to be safe to play again.