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Aari McDonald hitting her stride with Atlanta Dream

Atlanta Dream v Minnesota Lynx Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

At Arizona, one of Aari McDonald’s claims to fame was a streak of games with double-digit scoring. That streak stretched from her first game as a Wildcat until her last, eventually reaching 93 games. She didn’t pick up where she left off when she entered her professional career.

A crowded backcourt and a couple of games with shaky shooting out of the gate had her on an 0-for-7 streak with only one point to her name. Then, she didn’t appear at all in the team’s third game.

The lid finally came off the bucket for her in Atlanta’s fourth game. McDonald got tantalizingly close to that double-digit mark with two straight games with nine points, but her minutes and scoring continued to fluctuate.

That fluctuation has come to an end at least temporarily, but not in the way that McDonald would have wished. Chennedy Carter, the Atlanta Dream’s starting point guard, has been out of the lineup since May 29 when she suffered a hyperextended elbow in a game against the New York Liberty.

McDonald didn’t immediately pick up those minutes. She played just seven minutes in the game Carter had to leave, but that was temporary. Her opportunities came in the next two games.

The Dream spent the weekend in Minnesota, playing two games against the Lynx. McDonald played a career-high 23 minutes in an 86-84 loss on Friday, then she upped that to 24 minutes in a 100-80 loss on Sunday. Only team-leading scorer Courtney Williams played more on Sunday.

McDonald made good use of that time with a career-high 15 points in both games. That mark was good for second on the team in both games, and it wasn’t her only contribution.

On Friday, McDonald added one rebound, three assists, two steals, and a block. Two days later, she had two rebounds and two assists. She also took care of the ball in both games with a total of three turnovers for the weekend.

For the season, McDonald has 15 assists to 7 turnovers. That works out to a 2.14 assist-to-turnover ratio, considerably better than the best season of her college career (1.29 in 2020-21). At least part of that is playing with teammates who are faster and able to finish better.

“Being fast, always being ahead of plays, thinking ahead... sometimes it’s good and bad,” she said. “Having teammates who are also as quick as me and court savvy just helps a lot.”

On Sunday, McDonald and her teammates ran into foul trouble. She was one of three who had at least four fouls and played the final 11 minutes with five. As a group, the team didn’t defend well, allowing the Lynx to shoot 51.5 percent from the field, hit 44 percent from the 3-point line, and take 24 free throws.

Atlanta interim head coach Mike Petersen felt it came down to a lack of energy from most of the team. He didn’t believe that to be the case with a few of the bench players, though, including McDonald.

“She just needs to continue to get more comfortable with her teammates, all the different parts need to come together,” Petersen said. “But Aari doesn’t usually disappoint with energy. I thought her energy was really good tonight the whole time. And you could see that when she first came in, in the first half, we immediately got a little jolt. And some of that was her and some of that was the group she was with. And so that’s a really good thing.”

Perhaps most importantly, McDonald was on the floor in both games down the stretch. Despite having veterans at his disposal, Petersen was comfortable with a rookie point guard leading the way even on Friday when the game was close.

While fellow Pac-12 rookie Michaela Onyenwere seems to be quickly running away with the Rookie of the Year contest, McDonald has quietly made her mark. As per the Dream’s post-game press release on Sunday, in her seven games she “leads all rookies in assists per game (2.1), total assists (15), total made free throws (14), [and] total free throws attempted (16). She is ranked second among rookies for average three-pointers made per game (1.1) and ranks second in points per game (7.4).”

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