Aari McDonald won Pac-12 Player of the Week award two times in three weeks. Both times, the Arizona Wildcats guard reacted the same way — she went back to work.
“She doesn’t even talk about it,” teammate Sam Thomas said. “Even when we say, ‘You did a good job,’ she says ‘I just play the game, it doesn’t even matter.’”
There are a lot of awards — and even more recognition — these days.
McDonald scored 39 points in the Wildcats’ only loss of the season, to Loyola Marymount. In the seven games since, McDonald’s scoring line looks like this: 25, 32, 15, 24, 29, 28, and 17. McDonald ranks second nationally with 25.7 points per game. She trails the leader, Buffalo’s Cierra Dillard, by one-tenth of a point per game. Yes, it’s that close.
McDonald and the Wildcats (8-1) will host UTEP Monday night, the first game of their final week of nonconference play. The Wildcats will play Northern Arizona on Friday night. Both games start at 6:30 p.m.
“It’s a good feeling that all my hard work is paying off,” said McDonald, a sophomore transfer from Washington. “I know a lot of work has to be done and I have to improve. Definitely my shot is a little inconsistent, and knowing when to be more aggressive on defense and not getting cheap fouls.
“Having four experienced coaches is really helpful. I pick their brains a lot. I am always finding ways to get better … asking them if I do this, what is the best move. Most important, team-wise we have to improve every game and be focused on getting better. We need to work on rebounding and executing plays and when things break down, being basketball players and just play.”
When McDonald transferred to the UA in 2017 from the University of Washington, coach Adia Barnes called her a “total package” player. It’s not just the points. In one game, she missed a layup and the ball was rebounded by the other team. McDonald quickly stole the ball back, drove and scored.
“I think people overlook that she does everything,” Thomas said. “Little do they know that in transitions, 2-on-1, she doesn’t look for her shot. Or on pick and rolls she’ll hit a post first. On defense, she gets steals and makes that extra pass if she needs to. That she rebounds, too, being 5-7. All 10 players can be at the basket and randomly you see her go out and she’s already at the other end with the ball.”
Then there’s her leadership. Though McDonald considers herself a quiet person, she’s made an effort to lead.
“She is everyone’s biggest hype man,” Thomas said. “She loves getting everyone into their groove.”
McDonald patterns her game after one of the best at doing it all — Lakers star LeBron James. The other influence on her game is Kelsey Plum, her former Washington teammate. What do they have in common?
A willingness to do everything — and the will to win.
The Wildcats first saw those traits in McDonald last year, when she played on the scout team while sitting out her transfer year. Still, they’re surprised at times with her performance.
“She used her redshirt season to get stronger, faster and develop her game as you see it now,” teammate Dominique McBryde said .
“Her defense is out of this world — the way she blows by people with ease and pushes transition and breaks the press single-handedly. At times I’ve had to guard her in practice or summer workouts. It has helped me become a better defender. Without realizing it, she’s helping every one of us get better.”
And that may be the greatest advantage McDonald brings to her team—everything.
“I definitely agree that everyone is talking about my scoring, but I’m doing a great job at getting my teammates involved, being a leader, my defense, and helping posts rebound,” she said. “My favorite thing is playing defense, and our defense creates our offense. So, whatever I can do to get everyone sparking; being the energy plug to get my teammates going … that’s my thing. I enjoy doing that.”
• For all her success, McDonald says she has room for improvement. For one, she’s working on staying on her feet when she drives. More than a few times this season, the speedy guard has ended up on the floor.
• For the second season, the UA will host Future Cats. The series of clinics for Tucson youth focus on basketball fundamentals and social and leadership skills at the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium. Last Saturday marked the first session, and 35 kids received a copy of former UCLA coach John Wooden’s book, “The Pyramid of Success.” Kids who attend three sessions will receive a T-shirt. Cost is $70 for the next four sessions; a single session is $20. Contact Briana Felix, assistant director of operations, for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org or 520-621-4014.