Aari McDonald’s juggling act while finding place in WNBA as rookie

Dream guard Aari McDonald (4) defends during a WNBA basketball game against the Chicago Sky, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in College Park. The Chicago Sky won 85-77. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Dream guard Aari McDonald (4) defends during a WNBA basketball game against the Chicago Sky, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in College Park. The Chicago Sky won 85-77. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

Four hours at the end of Aari McDonald’s day have a purpose other than basketball. These moments require intense focus. Some days might be a grind and become tiresome. She might even break a sweat in crunch time.

Those hours have become critical for studying. McDonald, a rookie with the Dream, has two semesters remaining while finishing her master’s degree in applied behavior analysis at the University of Arizona. The only problem — or two — is that McDonald also is finding her place in a professional basketball league, and she’s nearly 2,000 miles away from the classroom in Atlanta.

Her days as a student continue, but in a different manner and with a paycheck.

“That time is always carved out,” McDonald said. “It can get frustrating sometimes, so I take breaks to regroup.”

The last three-plus months for McDonald have been a whirlwind. She gained her national fame by leading Arizona to the Final Four in March with a handful of heroic performances. The WNBA came calling shortly thereafter, and then she began the juggling act of getting accustomed to the league and a new organization.

Her first training camp, in fact, fell during the middle of final exams at Arizona. McDonald had to bring her laptop to practice, while “trying not to get distracted,” she said, to finish a number of assignments and prepare to ace a test.

“Aari works hard. She knows what business she has to handle because she gets it done,” guard Courtney Williams said. “Aari has her head on straight in order to be successful.”

McDonald, the No. 3 overall selection by the Dream in the WNBA draft, has started to find her niche in the WNBA as a rookie. Her breakout game came against Chicago, with nine points and five assists in 17 minutes, after being held scoreless in consecutive games to open the campaign. There are two sides to the journey, however, with the on-court performance coinciding with the quest to finish a graduate degree.

McDonald has averaged 4.4 points and two assists through five games off of the bench.

“It’s very impressive. She’s doing a fabulous job,” Dream interim coach Mike Petersen said. “A player who has good focus, good work ethic and will be a good player. It’s a matter of finding her place and her role, and it’s my job to help her with that.”

McDonald’s on-court expectations were lofty from the moment her plane landed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The rookie, albeit undersized and with the odds stacked against her, wanted to shoot a high percentage from 3-point range and continue to be the defensive menace she became known for as a Wildcat.

Her mantra is rather simple. She wants to stay ready for when the Dream need her to produce. She did so by soaking in knowledge from the veteran leadership of Monique Billings, Elizabeth Williams, Odyssey Sims and others. McDonald’s maturity fit into the Dream’s player-led culture and set the rookie up for a swift development.

“The practices are a game day for me because I can work on my craft,” McDonald said. “... I know my time is coming. I’m being patient right now.”

McDonald didn’t play in the Dream’s first win of the season. Petersen said it wasn’t a matter of McDonald doing anything wrong or falling out of the rotation. The Dream lost track of rotations during that victory, and McDonald got an early nod in the following game.

McDonald got her first-ever bucket out of the way on a 3-pointer which was set up by a Billings screen and a pass by Tiffany Hayes. The rookie swished it through and she “knew it,” but she didn’t stop there. Her performance proved crucial to propel the Dream over the Sky.

“She went all gas, no brakes,” Petersen said. “It was awesome.”

“That was the Retro Aari. I showed what I could do on both ends of the floor while being effective and efficient,” McDonald said. “I had that instant impact on the floor, and it felt really good.”

After the Chicago game, McDonald has continued to be an integral piece of the Dream’s guard rotation. Her play becomes increasingly important as the Dream try to continue their hot streak of play without second-year guard Chennedy Carter. She suffered a hyperextended elbow against the New York Liberty, and there’s no timetable for her return.

Based on previous patterns, McDonald could be the top reserve guard while Sims gets the starting nod in place of Carter.

“I wish my mindset was like Aari’s when I was a rookie,” said Dream forward Crystal Bradford, who is on a WNBA roster for the first time since 2015. “She’s sharp in the ears. She wants to learn and is not a defiant type of player. She’s someone who just produces, and she’ll do something to disrupt.”

All the while, McDonald has to hit the books. One of her courses progresses at her own pace and isn’t too much of an undertaking. The other, ethics in behavior analysis, is a different story. McDonald has to take extra steps such as watching YouTube videos to better understand concepts, but has remained on track in the early stages of the summer semester.

Before entering the league, McDonald had to take a deep breath. She wondered how she would manage the whirlwind and juggling act of playing two basketball seasons without a break. She “didn’t want to psych herself out,” she said, and put confidence atop her priority list.

“She tells me all of the stuff she’s maneuvering, but she’s handling it like a true pro,” Bradford said. “There’s a difference between someone collecting a check and a pro.”

In a few short months, McDonald can officially put academics in her rearview mirror. The results-driven guard can shift her full focus on season averages and team performance rather than grades on a transcript.

“Once I get my master’s, I’m going to buy myself something very expensive,” McDonald said. “I deserve it. It’ll be great.”

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