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Talent, energy and character made Aari McDonald the Atlanta Dream’s top pick

Stanford v Arizona Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Aari McDonald has become a very popular young woman. Going into the NCAA Tournament, she estimates that she had about 7,000 followers on Instagram. Since the run to the title game, she has over 43,000 and it’s growing steadily. Her photo was often featured in the WNBA’s social media posts and press releases about the draft. She did interviews with SportsCenter and The Undefeated, and she penned another letter for The Player’s Tribune.

“Watching her in the NCAA Tournament was special,” Atlanta head coach Nicki Collen said. “She became the belle of the ball. She earned every second of that.”

Now McDonald has the chance to help her league win new fans. An Arizona fan base that may not have cared too much about the WNBA prior to this year has taken a new interest in the league with one of their own emerging as a potential star on the professional level.

McDonald doesn’t take that responsibility lightly, on or off the court.

“It means a lot,” she said. “I mean, I think the women’s game is disrespected and I think people need to open their eyes. We’re talented women. There’s something bigger than basketball. They stand up for stuff that they’re very passionate about, and that’s great. I think that people need to follow them and just keep opening their eyes. It’s bigger than basketball, but definitely people need to just take notice of the league. I’m just happy I can be part of that if people are starting to watch. I’m going to keep encouraging them and tell them to pass it on.”

The ability to earn that kind of devotion is one thing that played into the Atlanta Dream’s decision to make her the No. 3 draft pick in Thursday’s draft. Out of all the players the team talked to, McDonald stood out.

“I think I talked to between international and American players like about 15 players as well as agents, coaches,” Collen said. “No one will say a bad word about Aari. From Adia Barnes to (former Washington head coach) Mike Neighbors, and former assistants that coached her... I think she’s touched so many people. And so I think it was a part of it, I think when we were going into this draft, it was about depth, it was about the future, it was about character. She checks all those boxes.”

After years of watching her—all the way back to her freshman year at Washington—it was also talent. McDonald was the best available as far as the Dream war room was concerned.

Collen was not concerned about shooting percentages when it came time to pick McDonald. She knew how much Arizona relied on their point guard to score and how she was often forced to take tough shots. Collen also knew what else McDonald brought to the table after watching her lead the Wildcats through the NCAA Tournament.

“You just can’t always rely on the percentages as analytical as we can be,” Collen said. “So (the NCAA Tournament) certainly impacted us. You saw her leadership, you saw the fun that she played with, the energy that she played with. And anyone that knows my team, that knows Atlanta, that knows who we are, knows that all those things matter to us.”

Collen is also not concerned about McDonald’s size.

“As a 5-5 former point guard, I don’t feel like she’s too short,” Collen said. “I always say we’re vertically challenged, but if you have heart, she’s so fast, and we’re not going to ask her to guard six-foot wings. But I can tell you this about her: I think if you asked her to guard a six-foot player...she’ll fight like heck because that’s kind of who she is as a player.”

That willingness to fight like heck on both ends of the floor was what sold Collen and the rest of the Dream’s decision makers that McDonald was the right fit.

“We were very much in a best available situation,” Collen said. “We just really felt like the combination of who she is, how she plays, the pace that she plays, the energy that she plays with, the defensive side of the ball. Everybody who knows me knows as much as I value offense and want us to be good offensively, I have kind of a defensive mindset.”

She’s also not worried that the Dream have a crowded backcourt. With free agency looming for some of those guards in the coming years, you never know what will happen, Collen said.

McDonald isn’t, either. She is very excited to play with Chennedy Carter, a player who took the road McDonald would have liked to last season.

“Did you just say my name and Chennedy?” McDonald asked a reporter. “That sounds scary already. We haven’t even touched the court together yet. I’m really excited. I’ve watched Chennedy a lot in her collegiate years and her first pro year. I’m just really excited to play with her, also Courtney Williams. So I can’t wait to get to practice with them.”

With her final college season barely concluded, McDonald is anxiously awaiting the chance to get her first pro season underway with Carter and Williams.

“They’re dogs,” McDonald said. “I’m a dog myself, so I can’t wait to get to the court together. We’re going to be dangerous. We’re going to be dangerous in the backcourt. I’m just ready to work.”

Carter could have returned to college this season, but opted to enter the draft after her junior year. If McDonald had chosen that path, the Dream would have had a decision to make.

“We thought she was going to come out a year ago and would have been in that mix of players that we were talking about,” Collen said. “But I think the combination of her stress fracture that she dealt with was a big part of what brought her back to Arizona for her senior year. So we’ve been watching her very closely for a couple years.”

Now, the pair of dynamic young guards have the opportunity to walk that path together and try to energize a fan base that could use it.

According to Across the Timeline, Atlanta had the second-lowest attendance in 2019, the last season fans were allowed. Only the New York Liberty, which played in the Westchester County Center in White Plains, NY, was worse.

“If you don’t think that Chennedy Carter’s exciting or Courtney Williams is exciting or Tiffany Hayes is exciting, then I don’t know what kind of women’s basketball fan you are,” Collen said. “Because they play with a ton of energy, they talk, they play with emotion, and I think that’s a big part of the fan experience. I think she adds to that. And I think you see how much she cares about the game, she cares about the team, she cares about the fans. And so I’d like to believe she’ll sell a ticket or two... I think going forward, I think she obviously, with her size and how hard she plays, will be a fan favorite.”