One reason Aari McDonald spurned the WNBA Draft to return for a third season with the Arizona Wildcats was so that she could prove her place as a point guard. She was one of the top scorers and defenders in the country last season, but had more turnovers than assists.
“I just want to show people that there’s more to it than me just scoring or playing defense,” she said. “I can also pass and I’ve always been a good passer.”
McDonald is proving that this season. She is averaging a career-high 4.8 assists per game (up from 3.6) and her assist-to-turnover ratio has risen to 1.49, putting her in the 85th percentile in the country, per Her Hoop Stats.
McDonald’s scoring numbers have fallen from 20.6 points per game to 18.5, but that’s actually a good thing, according to head coach Adia Barnes.
“That means we have more balance and more weapons on our team,” she said. “There’s never a good team that has one player scoring 20, 30 points and no one else doing anything. That means you’re too reliant on one player.”
There aren’t many passes McDonald can’t make, and now she is learning when to make them. McDonald watches film of her turnovers, which helps her avoid the same mistakes while also giving her a better grasp of her team’s personnel.
Barnes can tell you how important that is. When she played for the Sacramento Monarchs in 1998, she was teammates with Hall of Famer Ticha Penicheiro, a Portuguese guard known for threading the needle with crazy, but accurate, passes.
Barnes remembers them hitting teammates in the face if they weren’t paying attention. It taught Barnes that she better have her hands up when she rolls to the basket.
Though McDonald is the one doing the passing in Arizona’s case, the same idea applies.
“Like, you’re not going to give the ball to Semaj (Smith) on the run,” Barnes said. “You cannot give certain post players a really strong, fast pass when they’re moving. Yes, it’s a good pass, and Aari you could catch that pass, but you’re a guard that’s really fast. A 6-6 player can’t catch a pass like that. So I think it’s just understanding who to pass to when and putting them in situations to score. Like Semaj, let her cut down to the block, give it to her on a roll after she sets her feet and leg whips. It takes basketball IQ and it took Aari learning more and becoming a smarter player to do that, and I’m so proud of her.”
McDonald said Barnes’ teachings have helped “a lot” but she knows she is still a work in progress.
“I throw a (bad) pass and I look at her and she’s like, ‘that’s probably the wrong person you’re making that pass to,’” McDonald said. “It’s just knowing my clientele, and I want my teammates to score, so I try to do a better job at putting them right by the bucket.”
That’s where McDonald’s voice comes in. She is quiet by nature, but has forced herself to be more vocal on the court. That is a must if she wants to play point guard at the professional level. And at her size—5-foot-6—she probably has to.
“My parents are always like, ‘you know you’re getting older, you need to start talking,’” McDonald said. “You can’t be quiet forever and I just know that my teammates look for me a lot to say something, so I just got out of my comfort zone and started talking. I know I have good things to say. Sometimes I revert back to my old self, but I got to do it for the rest of the team. You have to be able to tell your teammates where to go. As a point guard you should know exactly where everyone should be. So I do that. If my teammates aren’t sure, I’ll direct them and I’ll talk to them. I think that’s really important as a point guard.”
So is knowing when to look for your own shot and when to create for others. That part seems to come pretty naturally for McDonald. You never hear Barnes gripe about McDonald’s shot selection, even when she has tough nights from the field.
“I just read the game,” McDonald said. “So when Coach Barnes calls a play for a certain person, I’m running it through and I want to look for that person. And as I’m trying to get that person the ball, I’m reading the defense, seeing what my players are doing and seeing what the second line of defense is doing. And so the next time we try to isolate that person again, I’m going to do the opposite and I’m trying to look for my shot.”
McDonald’s work has paid off so far. She is listed at No. 2 in ESPN’s latest WNBA mock draft. Last year, she was projected to be a borderline first-round pick.
Of course, boosting her draft stock was just one of many reasons she returned to Arizona.
“Aari is a very unselfish player, she’s a player that wants to win at all costs,” Barnes said. “If that means scoring less, taking less shots, she’ll do whatever it takes to win. That’s just who she is. For her to improve her assist-to-turnover ratio, that’s one of the most important things for her to continue her career and be a professional, so that’s awesome. ... She’s evolving into the best point guard in the country and one of the best overall players.”