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WNBA Draft Watch 2020: Aari McDonald, Arizona Wildcats seek even loftier heights

In just a little over one season at Arizona, guard Aari McDonald has put the program on her shoulders. As a junior, she may or may not declare her draft eligibility next spring, but she’s more than good enough to follow regardless.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 22 Women’s Arizona at Stanford
Aari McDonald’s arrival was a major factor in Arizona’s resurgence last season. Now a junior, both she and the Wildcats look to keep it going in 2019-2020.
Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sometimes all you need is a change of scenery in order to flourish — and sometimes that new destination could really use you, too.

When guard Aarion “Aari” McDonald transferred to the University of Arizona following her freshman season at Washington, the Wildcats had just concluded a lackluster 14-16 campaign under first-year head coach Adia Barnes. McDonald had played her complementary role alongside Washington legends Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor well, but she was capable of so much more.

Now a junior, McDonald has resurrected the Wildcats program during her short time there. Barnes’ squad bottomed out at 6-24 as McDonald sat due to NCAA transfer rules, but has been on quite the upward trajectory since, going 24-13 last season and winning the postseason WNIT. They’ve kept that momentum, opening the season at 5-0, and while McDonald can opt to stay in school for one more season if she chooses, the way she’s been playing would make her a surefire WNBA draft pick if she declares.

Honors and statistics

McDonald has been all over the box score since arriving at Arizona. Last season, she led the team in both scoring (24.1 points per game — third in the nation) and distributing (4.6 assists per game). She also racked up 2.6 steals per game, landing her on the Pac-12’s All-Defense Team for 2019.

So far, it’s been more of the same this season: 23.2 points and 5.0 assists per game, the volume all the more impressive given that McDonald has been scoring at 1.33 points per attempt.

Prior to the 2019-2020 season, McDonald was named to the Pac-12 Preseason All-Conference Team. She also earned spots on the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award (given to the nation’s top shooting guard) and Wade Trophy watch lists.

How she helps the Wildcats

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 22 Women’s Arizona at Stanford Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s hard to overstate how critical McDonald has been to the Wildcats’ recent success. Leading the team in both points and assists is evidence enough — McDonald’s sophomore usage rate of 37.4 percent was sky-high.

While such heavy usage might be concerning at first, it’s hard to argue with the results, specifically those related to the program itself. In McDonald, Arizona has a player who can create her own shot at any time, and on good efficiency. Not something many schools can brag about that, and when that player is also the team’s top playmaker, it’s easy to see how the Wildcats have been transformed into contenders: they simply get a lot of really effective possessions out of their primary option.

McDonald does this with a combination of speed and skill. She’s always been known as a fast player who can get to the rim, but she can also finish with strength and finesse. Look no further than in her recent 44-point outburst against Texas:

The cherry on top here is that while McDonald is an excellent transition guard — calling her a one-woman fast break wouldn’t be exaggerating — her play in the halfcourt has continued to improve. Per Synergy Sports, Arizona scores about 1.33 points per possession when McDonald runs a pick and roll, which accounts for 45.7 percent of the team’s plays. Believe the position categorization of players by their respective preseason award honors if you want; McDonald runs her team like a point guard and does it as effectively as just about anyone else.

Watch her play

Arizona doesn’t have any televised games until Pac-12 play starts in late December. You can, however, stream some of their non-conference games, as alluded to on the program’s schedule. Such upcoming games include Nov. 29 vs. UC Riverside and Dec. 2 vs. Monmouth.