As the youngest of six siblings, Aari McDonald had to earn every win she’s ever enjoyed on the basketball court. And when family games of one-on-one didn’t go her way? Push-ups were inescapable.
“Whoever lost in one-on-one, you owe the other person push-ups,” reminisced Aari McDonald. “That’s how it was, for real. It was always a competitive household.”
Aari fell in love with the game at her grandparents’ house as a young child, watching her family play pickup games in the driveway.
“Just watching that, my love grew,” she told Queen Ballers Club.
Aari’s love continued to grow, both in her hometown of Fresno, California, and anywhere else she happened to touch a basketball. It developed into a fiery passion, much to the chagrin of everyone who would cross her path on the court in the coming years.
Once in high school, Aari was far from the tallest player on the California hoops circuit. You probably could’ve guessed that if you’ve ever seen her play. Stature did not impact her effectiveness in the slightest.
Aari played her freshman year at Bullard High School in Fresno, before sitting out her sophomore season due to transfer rules. It was as a junior and senior at Brookside Christian High School in Stockton, California, where Aari truly took flight.
Her statistics were fairly ludicrous – especially the defensive numbers. Aari averaged 6 steals per game over her last two high school seasons. The pesky guard has a way of packing a punch, not just on the court but also in interviews. She may not use many words, but she makes them count. When recalling those steal numbers, Aari simply said, “as soon as you get past half court, it’s bad.”
As a junior, Aari averaged over 9 rebounds per game despite her aforementioned height. Her tenacity on the glass signified her mindset – she wasn’t going to be deterred by taller players who camped in the paint. Aari notched six triple-doubles and one quadruple-double that season. Flaunting her humility and nonchalance at greatness, Aari insisted she didn’t remember the quadruple-double.
“Just another day,” she quipped.
Years later, Aari has rode that outlook to a successful professional basketball career. Now in her second season with the Atlanta Dream, Aari is thriving given greater responsibility and an improved core of teammates. Atlanta sits on the precipice of the playoffs with just days remaining in the regular season.
For Aari, the journey to the WNBA has been anything but easy.
Most basketball fans became acquainted with Aari because of her stellar play at the University of Arizona. But that’s not where her Division 1 story began. Aari played her freshman season at the University of Washington, where she started 21 of 28 games and averaged just a hair under 10 points per game.
Following her freshman year (2016-17), Aari made a decision that would change her life, and the course of her basketball career along with it: she transferred to the University of Arizona.
“My grandfather passed away,” she said. “I wanted to be close to home. I wanted to make sure my parents could get to me. I had family in Arizona. The relationship I built with Coach [Adia] Barnes and Coach [Morgan] Valley and her husband … that was just easy. It was home away from home. That was family.”
Aari’s selfless decision – prioritizing family over the school she’d initially chosen for basketball – turned out to be a good athletic decision, too. After sitting out the 2017-18 season, Aari arrived with a vengeance for the Wildcats the following year. She finished third in the nation in scoring, pouring in 24.1 points per game to go along with 6.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 2.6 steals.
Aari wasn’t able to match those gaudy numbers her junior season, but not for lack of trying. In 2019-20, she continued to prove herself as one of the best two-way guards in the nation, posting averages of 20.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 2.3 steals. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA Tournament was canceled that season, postponing any hopes Aari had of making waves in win or go home ball games.
The wait was worth it. As a senior, Aari made a name for herself in every basketball household across the States. But as evidenced by her statistical progression from 2016-17 on, this was far from an overnight sensation story.
“The unseen hours,” Aari reflected when we asked her about the work that went into her senior year breakthrough. “The long nights, early mornings. It was hard but it was a lot of self discipline and time management, knowing what my end goal was.”
Aari is a goal-oriented person, someone who writes down on paper what she wants to achieve, then goes out and accomplishes those goals. But more on that later.
During the 2020-21 regular season, Aari’s numbers looked similar to what she’d posted as a sophomore and junior under Barnes at Arizona. There was one major difference, however: the team was primed for a postseason run. Entering the tournament, opponents knew facing Arizona would be a headache, but no one took Aari and Co. seriously as a Final Four threat. That all changed in March.
This is where the late nights and early mornings manifested into primetime excellence. Aari McDonald’s already stellar defense somehow grew even more dominant, and her offensive leadership shone brighter than the sun at high noon. What changed was Aari’s accuracy from behind the three-point line. A previous weakness of her game, Aari caught fire shooting the basketball, giving defenders nary a single good option when it came to guarding her.
Arizona trounced Stony Brook in round one, then grinded out a defensive battle over BYU to advance to the Sweet 16. There, they knocked off higher seeded Texas A&M by a comfortable 15 point margin before beating Indiana – again by double digits – to advance to the Final Four.
That’s when things really became interesting. Sure, few expected Arizona to make it to the final weekend of the tournament, but it was conceivable at the very least. Hardly anyone outside of their home state, however, expected Arizona to have any chance of snatching a victory from the University of Connecticut in the Final Four. UConn is, after all, the most successful program in the history of the sport by a wide margin.
Aari heard all the chatter and internalized the doubts. She used her underdog status as fuel, as motivation. When we asked her what stood out in her memory about Arizona’s tournament run in 2021, she highlighted those who penciled in UConn to advance to the championship game.
“I would say the night before we played UConn,” Aari recalled. “Everybody was just like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a blowout. Paige this, Paige that.’ I take a lot of stuff personally. I’m like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna show you.’ That’s the moment that stuck out.”
And show us she did. Aari was the high scorer of a game that saw the Wildcats upset the Huskies, 69-59. She dropped 26 points, snared 7 rebounds, snatched 2 steals, and hit 4-of-9 three-pointers in a definitive upset that had the whole sports world talking. Who was this ball of energy, heart, and competitiveness, and why hadn’t we seen her coming?
Arizona would go on to lose a heartbreaker in the championship, battling valiantly above its weight class but falling by a single point to Stanford. Aari was once again the game’s high-scorer, but the Wildcats fell a bucket short. Still, Aari had already made her mark, win or lose.
A superstar had been born.
For women’s basketball players, the turnaround between their final NCAA Tournament and the WNBA Draft is a blur. One day, you’re competing for a college championship; literal days later, you’re dressed to the nines waiting to hear the WNBA Commissioner call your name and reveal your professional fate.
The overwhelming star of March, Aari’s draft stock had skyrocketed during Arizona’s tournament run. With the third overall pick in the 2021 Draft, the Atlanta Dream selected none other than Aari McDonald.
Immediately, it was off to training camp. Then, just over a month after suffering perhaps the most painful defeat of her basketball life, Aari was expected to play a role for a professional franchise in the most competitive league in the world.
The summer of 2021 was a bit of a struggle for Aari. She went from being the star of the Wildcats to Atlanta’s backup point guard, netting over 16 minutes per game while averaging 6.3 points, 2 assists and 0.8 steals per game. The thought of Aari grabbing fewer than one steal per game was nearly incomprehensible to her ardent supporters, but it’s proof of the ridiculously difficult acclimation process one must navigate graduating from college to the pros.
Year two has seen Aari get back to her roots on the court. Though still predominantly coming off the bench, she’s played a major part in Atlanta’s 2022 resurgence, perhaps the biggest surprise of the WNBA season. Aari is averaging 11.1 points on greatly improved shooting percentages in over 24 minutes per game.
“The game slowed down for me this year,” she said. “Knowing to get to my spots, knowing when to change speeds or knowing when to set something up. I’m still learning about the sequences. We [have] a bad defensive possession – we gotta come down and just set stuff up. Just reading the game and knowing when to get to my spots.”
It’s interesting to hear Aari highlight changing speeds, since that’s one of the strengths of her game. She has a brilliant ability to play at a blinding speed, whizzing past opponents in transition and scoring before they can recover. This year, she’s added to that brilliance by utilizing slower moves, too, little hesitation dribbles that confuse defenders expecting something quicker. Then, when Aari does hit the gas pedal, it has an even greater effect.
Defensively, Aari is really turning heads. First year Dream head coach, Tanisha Wright, adores her work ethic and ability to be a nuisance.
“I think Aari does a great job of being pesky and really annoying the opponents,” said Tanisha Wright. “I think that’s her best aspect is that she has the ability to use her quickness and speed to stay with people and really get under their skin.”
With an actual offseason to take a breath and hit the film room, Aari now has a better understanding of what her world-class opponents want to do, and how to neutralize them.
“Now that I have a year under my belt and I know how people are, just knowing their tendencies, watching film and knowing [that] they want to get to their spots,” she said. “Just trying to cut them off and beat them there. That’s been my biggest adjustment.”
The work and the studying is paying off in a major way.
Perhaps the most impressive thing (among many) that sticks out when talking to Aari is her genuine mix of confidence and humility. She has the ultimate belief in her abilities, but she’s not cocky. Pride is a word she repeats often, and it fits perfectly with her defensive ethos.
“My mentality is that I take pride in my defense,” she assessed. “You’re not going to get by me. And if you do, it’s a mistake on me, but I’m going to lock you up the next time.”
Remember her goal-oriented nature we discussed earlier? It’s not an act. Aari knew she wanted to play in the WNBA, and she knew what she must accomplish at Arizona to get there.
“You have to have goals, write them out, and try to achieve them,” she said. “I knew what I wanted to do after college. I knew that if I didn’t want to do something, I had to think, ‘Oh, the next person is doing this.’ That was my mindset throughout college. I had to get it done. There was no way around it.”
The greatest defenders are the ones who work the hardest, and Aari is an embodiment of that truth.
Even with all the hours she’s put in and all the adulation she’s received this season, she remains hungry. When we asked Aari about her 6 steals per game in high school, she turned it into motivation to reach another level professionally.
“Gotta get back to that,” she said. “I can do that more.”
So what’s next for the point guard? One thing is for sure – she’s going to write it down before it happens.
“I want to be on the All-Defensive team,” she said. “That’s one of my biggest goals. And just honestly to make playoffs and to just be the best version of myself every game. Executing my role and being that solid lockdown defender.”
It all comes back to one word: pride.
“I’m very prideful on the court,” she repeated. “Very.”
Defense is pride personified. Preventing your assignment from scoring is as mental as it is physical. When we asked Aari how she worked on keeping her defense on point, she offered a quote that perfectly encapsulates how she approaches the game of basketball:
“I don’t do anything to keep my defense on point. It’s just going back to that mentality. That’s what keeps me alive.”