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Three Up, Three Down: Aari McDonald growing up fast for Atlanta Dream

Second-year guard Aari McDonald has stepped up for the Atlanta Dream after a slew of injuries hit the team’s backcourt. Just how good has she been as a starter, and is she worth picking up in fantasy basketball?

New York Liberty v Atlanta Dream
Aari McDonald’s game has taken off since she worked her way into Atlanta’s starting lineup.
Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Dream (8-10) have lost seven of their last eight games, with a multitude of injuries largely to blame: Erica Wheeler, Kristy Wallace, Tiffany Hayes, Nia Coffey and Kia Vaughn have all missed time for a variety of reasons, which has gutted Atlanta’s depth.

While the Dream have made a smattering of hardship signings to compensate, their remaining healthy players have largely had to step into bigger roles, both in the backcourt and frontcourt. It’s yielded mixed results for Atlanta, but has opened up some interesting avenues for fantasy basketball managers, particularly those who have Aari McDonald on their teams.

McDonald started the 2022 season coming off the bench behind Wheeler and Wallace, but she’s had to play big minutes with both guards out of Atlanta’s lineup and is putting up some of the best numbers of her young career in the process. She’s the star of the show in this week’s “Three Up, Three Down.”

Three Up

Indiana Fever v Dallas Wings
Teaira McCowan still isn’t playing as much as fantasy managers would like, but it’s been enough for her to reward them.
Photo by Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images

Teaira McCowan (Dallas Wings)

McCowan finally seems to be settling into the Wings’ rotation, averaging 10.8 points and 7.4 rebounds in 18 minutes in her last five games. She’s recorded a pair of double-doubles in that span and even started alongside Isabelle Harrison in the Wings’ last game against Phoenix.

Outlook: There are several ways to look at this. It’s nice to see McCowan crack the starting lineup and play consistent minutes, but the Wings have been one of the hardest teams to predict in terms of game-by-game minutes distributions under head coach Vickie Johnson. McCowan does seem like a significantly safer play than she was, say, two weeks ago, though, especially considering we still don’t have a timetable on when Satou Sabally (knee) will return to the lineup. Even if she’s not cracking 20 minutes a night, McCowan is still worth a flier in most fantasy formats thanks to her high-efficiency scoring and rebounding.

Aari McDonald (Atlanta Dream)

McDonald has been magnificent since moving into the Dream’s starting lineup (six games), averaging 16 points, 4.7 assists and 1.7 steals in 35 minutes per game.

Outlook: McDonald got off to a slow start to the 2022 season, but injuries to Erica Wheeler, Kristy Wallace and Tiffany Hayes forced her into a much larger role than she was initially playing, and the second-year guard has performed admirably given the circumstances. Interestingly, McDonald’s usage rates as a starter and a reserve have been nearly identical (19.1 percent and 19 percent, respectively), so keep this in mind when one or more of the above players return to Atlanta’s lineup and McDonald’s minutes take a hit.

Rebekah Gardner (Chicago Sky)

Gardner started in place of Kahleah Copper (back) on Sunday and recorded 12 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals in 30 minutes of play. She currently leads all WNBA guards in field goal percentage, shooting 53.4 percent from the floor.

Outlook: It’s been Gardner’s defense that has drawn the most attention and ultimately made her indispensable to the Sky, but her knack for scoring efficiently around the rim and snagging the occasional offensive rebound or two has made her much more than just a defensive specialist. She’s a must-play as long as Copper is out of the lineup, and she probably won’t take much of a hit even when Copper returns, given her defensive superiority over just about every other perimeter player on Chicago’s roster.

Three Down

Connecticut Sun v Atlanta Dream
Monique Billings has been losing minutes to younger forwards in the Dream’s rotation.
Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

Monique Billings (Atlanta Dream)

Billings has been quiet lately, averaging 4.2 points and 5.4 rebounds in her last five games while shooting just 40.9 percent from the floor. Most recently against Connecticut, Billings (16 minutes) was benched early in the third quarter in favor of rookie Naz Hillmon (24 minutes), and her 17.1 minutes per game is the lowest it’s been since she was a rookie in 2018.

Outlook: Billings has never been a high-usage player for the Dream, but her losing minutes to Hillmon and hardship signee Beatrice Mompremier is a tad concerning. Her per-minute rebounding has been as excellent as ever, but she doesn’t bring much to the table offensively, and with head coach Tanisha Wright less willing to use her as a small-ball center than previous Dream coaches, she’s not currently a high-upside fantasy play.

Damiris Dantas (Minnesota Lynx)

Dantas was a non-factor in the Lynx’ recent loss to Chicago, playing just ten minutes (four in the second half) and going scoreless while recording one rebound, one assist and one blocked shot.

Outlook: Dantas seemed to be turning the corner (15 points in 26 minutes against Phoenix), but with Sylvia Fowles (knee) back in Minnesota’s lineup, the fantasy outlook for most other Lynx centers immediately becomes bleak. There is, of course, a strong chance Fowles is either given some games off or is shut down entirely towards the end of the season, but even in such a situation, Jessica Shepard, Natalia Achonwa and Nikolina Milic would all be better fantasy options than Dantas.

Marina Mabrey (Dallas Wings)

Mabrey has struggled with her shot as of late, averaging eight points on 26.3 percent (26.7 percent on 3-pointers) from the field in her last three games. She has, however, been playing steady minutes (28.1) during that span, and has settled into what appears to be a long-term starting role for Dallas.

Outlook: Mabrey has been prone to shooting slumps like this in the past, and it’s no surprise that she’s fallen back to earth after a scorching start to the season. As frustrating as Wings head coach Vickie Johnson’s rotations can be, she’s definitely more committed to Mabrey as a starter than in 2021, which means the streaky guard will have plenty of opportunity to get going again.