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Aari McDonald the No. 3 pick amid whirlwind spring

Aari McDonald’s basketball journey so far has been highlighted by what happened most recently when she led her Arizona Wildcats to the championship game of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Stanford v Arizona
Aari McDonald was the No. 3 pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

From her childhood days learning from Bruce Bowen at basketball camp to the 2021 NCAA Tournament championship game, Aari McDonald was on the rise. Last Thursday, she rose all the way to No. 3 in the WNBA Draft and will now take her talents to Atlanta.

McDonald was a special talent from the start, but exceeded the expectations surrounding her entering college when she was the No. 55 Hoop Gurlz recruit. She went from one of Kelsey Plum’s sidekicks at Washington to the focal point at Arizona, where she averaged a career-best 24.1 points per game as a redshirt sophomore in 2018-19.

The awards piled up for McDonald as a junior and then, as a senior, her exposure was taken to new heights during an incredible run to the national championship game for the Wildcats.

McDonald is from Fresno, Calif. (Bowen is also from that area), but playing in San Antonio for the NCAA Tournament may have had special meaning for her, seeing as that’s where Bowen won three NBA championships with the Spurs. McDonald scored 20, 17, 31, 33, 26 and 22 points in her six tourney games, with the 26-point effort coming in a big-time upset over UConn in the Final Four.

McDonald may have come up one shot shy of winning a national championship, but her impact on Arizona basketball will last forever and now she has a bright future in the WNBA. Expected to be the No. 5 pick in the draft, McDonald heard her name called two spots early.

“It’s been a lot going on, but through it all I never got too high, never got too low,” she said on draft night. “Even after losing in the NCAA Tournament, I was never too low. I always took it from the bright side, I took from the positive in my situation. This whole journey of getting drafted into the WNBA I’ve been happy and I’m feeling blessed.”

“I’ll bring a relentless effort on both ends of the floor, a scrappy style of play. I’m not afraid to do the dirty work, dive on the floor, I’m not afraid. I can set my teammates up, create my own shots. I'm very quick, a very pesky defender and I can shoot the ball a little bit.”

McDonald became the first Arizona player drafted in the first round and hopes to make her college head coach Adia Barnes, who also played in the WNBA, proud.

“I’m excited to be the first,” McDonald said. “I’m paving the way for all the future Wildcats out there. ... I thank my coaches and my teammates for putting me into successful positions. I appreciate them for that.”

The Dream were part of a tight race between them, the Washington Mystics and the Dallas Wings for the final playoff spot in 2020. They came up short of the postseason, despite a phenomenal season from Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney.

Now that Laney is a member of the New York Liberty, 2020’s No. 4 pick, Chennedy Carter, will be expected to become even more of a star than she was during a rookie season that saw her miss six games due to injury but still finish second in Rookie of the Year voting. Carter is a prolific scoring guard just like McDonald and together they could form a lethal duo in Atlanta’s backcourt.

“You just saying my name and Chennedy’s, that sounds scary already and we haven’t even touched the court together yet,” McDonald said. “Watched Chennedy a lot in her collegiate years and in her first pro year. I’m just really excited to play with her. Also, Courtney Williams. I can’t wait to get to practice with them.”

The Dream’s Tiffany Hayes, who opted out of the 2020 season, will be back and is also expected to be a star. On Sunday she scored 29 points for Perfumerias Avenida in a losing effort in the EuroLeague Women championship game, proving that she is still at the top of her game and can compete with the WNBA’s best, a handful of whom play for EuroLeague champ UMMC Ekaterinburg. Atlanta also added key frontcourt pieces in Cheyenne Parker and Tianna Hawkins through free agency, giving it a team that could compete for a playoff spot again.

For now, McDonald is content being part of the WNBA and knowing that she brought some Arizona fans with her.

“I’m just happy I can be a part of that,” she said. “People have started watching. I’m going to tell them to pass it on.”