Aari McDonald came to Arizona as a quiet teenager. During her years as a star in Tucson, she started to find her voice. Now, she aims to continue that growth as she takes on the role of Director of Recruiting Operations for the Wildcats.
“I’m not much of a talker,” McDonald said. “I think that will help me step out of my comfort zone and talk to high school players and also just talk to the girls on the team.”
Her new boss, head coach Adia Barnes, thinks those skills will help McDonald when she returns to play for the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA each summer.
“These are areas I think it’s all about growing and getting better,” Barnes said. “If she can grow into that, she becomes just better overall. And I think that those are areas...that will carry over to being a point guard in the WNBA because you have to communicate. You have to be in uncomfortable situations. That’s when you grow. So I think all of these things will help her and I think...she’ll see a really big difference.”
McDonald’s history with the program should also make a difference for Arizona. Barnes and her staff have already brought in the highest-rated class ever for 2022. The 2023 class is ranked as the No. 1 class in the country in the early going, but the head coach wants even more. Both she and her former player believe they can do it together.
“I’m excited to talk to young players,” McDonald said. “I can relate to them in so many ways. I’ve been in their shoes, and they want to be in my shoes in the future. So like Adia said, there’s no better recruiter and I played my career here. And so I’ve done great things under Coach Barnes and I think that I can really sell the school and have kids commit to Coach Barnes and the program.”
There are other advantages for both sides, as well. McDonald can’t work out with the players because she’s not allowed to do on-court coaching, but she can interact with and mentor them.
“She’s going to help us,” Barnes said. “The players, it’s one thing me saying it from 20 years ago. They didn’t know I played and never watched me play, and it’s deaf ears. It’s like your coach says it all the time, but then when someone’s doing it that you’re watching and you relate to and that you followed and love as a player, she’s saying it, it hits home a lot harder.”
On McDonald’s side, she will benefit from access to the training facilities, nutritionists, and other services that WNBA players usually have to pay for themselves.
There is one possible wrinkle in the arrangement. McDonald will be away from the program from May through at least August every year while she’s playing in the WNBA. Barnes does not see that as an issue, though. She said that Special Assistant to the Head Coach Bett Shelby along with assistant coaches Ashley Davis and Erin Grant will pick up the slack in the recruiting department during those few months when McDonald is away.
The plan to bring McDonald back to Tucson had been underway for months, but it took the player a while to decide what she was going to do this offseason. Europe didn’t agree with her last year, but she also had the option of staying in Atlanta and training in the offseason. In the end, she decided that McKale Center was the place to be.
There were administrative hurdles to clear. Barnes said that they had to file paperwork with the Pac-12 to allow the pro player to return to her alma mater.
Her former teammates were surprised when the news finally broke.
“I think on my first day, Cate (Reese) was like, ‘What are you doing here?’” McDonald said. “And I didn’t want to tell anybody just yet, but I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m just visiting. I’m here for a little bit.’ And then when it came out, she was like, ‘You’re really here, A?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ so Cate’s excited to have me back as well.”
As McDonald steps into her new role, she knows she’s already made progress in the areas that are important to her success, but she’s not done yet.
“I’ve grown a lot, especially just looking back at my second year,” McDonald said. “I got very comfortable with my teammates and Coach Barnes had been preaching to me for years, like, ‘you need to step out of your shell.’ And then also (Atlanta Dream) Coach (Tanisha Wright) always says as a point guard, you have to demand respect from your teammates. And so that made me want to talk even more, especially just being the point guard and extension of the coach on the floor. So I think I’ve made my strides but I’m not where I want to be.”
She thinks she can get there by coming back to Tucson.