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Aari McDonald juggling school and WNBA draft preparation after leading Arizona to national championship game

Stanford v Arizona Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The old stereotype goes that when the NCAA Tournament is over, men’s college basketball players who are headed to the NBA are done with class. It’s all about workouts and draft preparation. Aari McDonald wants everyone to know that’s not the case for her.

“I’m still a student,” she said Tuesday, nine days after playing in the national championship game. “That bubble really messed me up, so I’m just trying to adjust again.”

The Arizona guard will have her master’s degree in Applied Behavioral Analysis in August, so there’s still work to be done.

“Despite everything that I’ve accomplished as a player, I think getting my master’s degree is better than any accomplishment that I have,” McDonald said. “Nobody can take that away from me. I worked extremely hard, so I’m really excited about that.”

In the meantime, she’s had little time to do anything else. There has been no research on potential teammates. There have been no discussions with head coach Adia Barnes about the draft process.

“We’ve just been busy women,” McDonald said.

As McDonald prepares for Thursday’s draft, Barnes is working on keeping the program at the level her star senior carried them to. Fortunately, McDonald said her agency—Wasserman—has kept things running smoothly as she interviews with various teams.

The agency represents high-profile female athletes like Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, NBA stars like Russell Westbrook, and a number of women’s head basketball coaches.

They have kept anything surprising from popping up along the way, McDonald said. She’s grateful for that since she’s had little time.

“Everything since I’ve been back, they’re moving pretty fast,” she said. “I’ve talked to a couple coaches. All the calls are great. Just everyone said that I can be a valuable player on their team and I can have an instant impact. And they’ve just all been telling me that everything that I’ve done that has gotten me this far, just keep doing that. It’s really like don’t change who I am as a player.”

The ESPN telecast requires more work on McDonald’s end, though. Since it will be held virtually for the second straight season, the network sent equipment to the family’s home in Fresno, where McDonald will watch the draft with her family.

She is grateful for her mother’s help with the preparations. Andrea was tasked with setting up the gear for the draft broadcast. She will also be hosting the celebration of her daughter’s crowning achievement.

“I’m very excited,” McDonald said. “My mom at the moment is planning a draft party with family, a couple of old coaches and very close friends.”

When her name is called, the group will most likely be celebrating McDonald joining the Dallas Wings, who have four of the top seven picks. But there are also possibilities of her landing with the Indiana Fever or Atlanta Dream. There’s even a remote shot of her favorite team selecting her, but it would mean dropping lower in the draft than anyone expects.

“I used to love the (Los Angeles) Sparks because of Lisa Leslie and plus I’m a California kid,” McDonald said. “So that was my team, but then as I got older, I kind of liked the (Minnesota) Lynx.”

The four-time champion Lynx have the ninth pick in the draft. The lowest McDonald is listed in any mock draft is No. 8 and most have her in the top 5, putting her on track to be the first Wildcat ever selected in the first round.

As she waits for that moment when WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert calls her name, McDonald hopes what she helped build at Arizona will be motivation for others.

“This is a great program,” McDonald said. “And just for me to (be the highest draft pick in Arizona history), it’s crazy. And it just lets people know, upcoming players that are coming to Arizona or deciding to come to Arizona, that you can do anything here. Just pretty much believe in yourself, believe in your teammates, believe in your coaches. I mean, I set the bar pretty high, but I want the younger ones still in the program, people coming in here to outdo me. I’m just excited.”