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WNBA experts weigh in on Aari McDonald’s potential ahead of 2021 draft

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four Semifinal-Arizona at Connecticut Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Aari McDonald undoubtedly returned to Arizona for the 2020-21 season in order to do something special with her team, but there is also no doubt that she came back to improve her WNBA draft stock. There were questions about her shooting and her size. Questions that experts think she has largely answered.

“Aari McDonald was fantastic in the NCAA Tournament,” said ESPN women’s basketball analyst LaChina Robinson. “I do believe that, unfortunately, oftentimes with the Pac-12 Conference the average fan is maybe not up late enough to see the Arizona Wildcats play. I think Aari probably was one of the more underestimated stars coming into the NCAA Tournament. I just thought the way she played on both ends of the floor, obviously shot the ball at a higher percentage than she did during the regular season, which definitely helped her draft stock. But she is just fantastic. Though there were some questions about her size coming in, and there still may be, as she would probably say, she proved a lot of people wrong around what she was capable of.”

The draft will be held as a virtual event for the second straight year. It will kick off on ESPN on Thursday, April 15 at 4 p.m. MST. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert will announce the picks live with certain players taking part remotely.

Fans can take part in a Draft Chat via the WNBA app or beginning before the draft at 3 p.m. MST. All of the mock drafts say that Arizona fans should be prepared early.

Before the season, McDonald was projected as the No. 2 pick this year, but she has fallen as low as No. 8 over the course of the season. Her dominant performance in the NCAA Tournament has once again moved her into the top five of most projections. Fortunately for her, there are several teams at the top of the draft who need point guards.

The peculiar thing about the 2021 draft is that the Dallas Wings currently hold four of the 12 first-round picks: No. 1, No. 2, No. 5 and No. 7. In other words, there’s a strong chance that McDonald ends up as a member of one of the youngest teams in the WNBA if the Wings do not trade some of those picks.

WNBA teams can have up to 12 players on their rosters, but some have smaller rosters for salary cap reasons. The Wings currently have 10 players.

Six of the Wings’ players are entering either their second or third season in the league. Because they have so few veterans, Dallas is more likely to be able to maintain a full 12-player roster than a team like Phoenix, which has three different veteran players on “super-maximum” deals.

That might be to McDonald’s advantage since even first-round draftees can find it difficult to stick in the league.

“I think every year it’s important for us to remind people how hard it is to make a WNBA roster,” said ESPN women’s basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo. “You’ve seen players wear the 1-in-144 shirts. It’s not 144. Not every team, with the salary cap, is going to be able to carry 12 players. Multiple teams have 11. It’s less than 144 roster spots. It is really, really, really hard to make a WNBA roster as a result.”

Some teams value experience to such a degree that they have almost completely skipped the draft. Phoenix waived all three of its draft picks last year. The team will skip the first round this year and next year after trading those picks for veterans this season, meaning that they will not have kept a first-round draft pick for three straight years.

The Wings are very different. Dallas has taken the exact opposite tactic: trading away veterans for a large cache of draft picks. With that kind of influence over this particular draft, it helps that Wings general manager Greg Bibb is high on McDonald. He is not just impressed by how she plays now but by how she has developed.

“I think Aari McDonald is an exceptional player who has gotten better each year,” Bibb said. “And I think she’s a player who has a knack for playing her best in the biggest games, and I think we saw that in the recently completed NCAA Tournament.”

Bibb said that his primary focus in the draft is rebounding. For that reason, most mock drafts project forward Charli Collier of Texas to be taken No. 1 and center Awak Kuier of Finland to go No. 2.

If McDonald falls to No. 5, though, she could give Dallas another dynamic guard to pair with third-year guard Arike Ogunbowale. The Notre Dame product led the league in scoring last year and has led the Wings in scoring the last two years.

It would also land McDonald on the same roster as former Oregon Duck Satou Sabally, who tweeted her support for McDonald during the tournament.

McDonald could also provide that rebounding help that Bibb is looking for. Despite her size, McDonald was Arizona’s second-leading rebounder all three years, averaging 5.9 RPG over her Wildcat career. She trailed Cate Reese her first two years in Tucson, then was second to Trinity Baptiste as a senior.

As for that size question, Bibb believes it’s something that is within her ability to overcome.

“Obviously size is always a consideration in the game of basketball, but I don’t think it is ultimately a negative factor that is going to determine the outcome of someone’s career,” he said. “I think Cheryl [Reeve] in Minnesota proved that with Crystal Dangerfield this past year. Crystal played unbelievably well and was named Rookie of the Year.”

The remaining question is whether McDonald would be best-served playing on a young team where she might have more opportunities immediately or on a team with a more experienced point guard from whom she could learn the ropes.

“I think the league is a hard league to transition into no matter what kinds of backgrounds you have,” Bibb said. “I also think any time you have the opportunity to kind of sit back and watch and learn, that’s a lot easier to do than to learn on the fly.”

There are teams looking for point guard help who fit that description, and one of them might take McDonald before Dallas has a chance. If the Wings take size with their first two picks, the Atlanta Dream might be a landing spot at No. 3.

The Dream have 13 players coming to camp even before the draft, but McDonald would have the opportunity to learn from veteran point guard Odyssey Sims. On the down side, McDonald would have a fight on her hands to get playing time on a squad with a number of talented guards, including second-year star Chennedy Carter.

The Indiana Fever also have a number of guards on the roster, although some are signed to training camp deals. McDonald would have competition, but that's exactly what head coach Marianne Stanley is looking for with the No. 4 pick. She wants someone who competes and adapts, someone who has the intangibles that McDonald has demonstrated throughout her Arizona career.

“For me, the most important thing is to understand that every one of these college players is about to embark on a new whole journey in a league that is exceptional from top to bottom, is challenging,” Stanley said. “The rigors are there, and you have to have not only talent, but you have to have a big heart, and then you have to want to compete. You can’t shy away from competing. I think we’re looking for somebody who fits what we are building here as a championship culture and a mindset that says, we’re in every game, and you bring something to the table that adds to what we have.”

But the best of all worlds might be sliding down the draft, landing with the Chicago Sky at No. 8. To do so, Dallas would have to pass on McDonald four times, but she would end up with a playoff organization that is explicitly looking for their heir apparent at point guard.

The Sky are led by veteran point guard Courtney Vandersloot, but head coach and general manager James Wade is making no secret about what the team needs to take care of in this draft.

“Our eighth spot is probably going to go to a point guard,” Wade said. “A lot is dictated off the last two years where the separation of Sloot on and off the court was separated even further. I think last year she was like — her point differential last year was like a .29, so we definitely need to address that. I think we’ve kind of toed the line the last two years in doing that, and this year I think we just have to address that as much as possible.”

Vandersloot set a league record with an 18-assist game last September. She has averaged 6.5 APG over her 10-year career, making her a great potential mentor for McDonald. Learning from Vandersloot would also mean landing on a team that has only missed the playoffs twice since 2013.

Did McDonald improve her stock too much for that?