Dream take emerging guard Aari McDonald with third overall selection

Aari McDonald did it again on the draft stage. She wanted respect for the pronunciation of her first name. As McDonald sat alongside loved ones, a floral backdrop with “Air-E” in jazzy, backlit script draped behind them.

“It gets tiring,” McDonald said of the mispronunciations. “All of it was inspired by the NCAA Tournament, and we just saw it as a good idea. … They’ll know it on the court, for sure.”

On Thursday, McDonald got another chance to make herself known. It involved plans to head to the Peach State.

The Dream chose McDonald, a guard from Arizona, with the third overall selection in Thursday’s WNBA draft. McDonald didn’t know where she would end up. She had numerous conversations with Dream coach Nicki Collen and her staff. McDonald saw an ideal fit with the Dream, but didn’t know when her name would be called.

“I kept waiting for it to happen,” McDonald said. “I was getting a little nervous and started picking at my nails and stuff. I finally heard it called, and I can’t put those emotions into words. This is something I’ve worked for my whole life, and I’m blessed for it to happen in front of my loved ones.”

The Dream, however, had an idea as they trimmed their list to four prospects Wednesday, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

“(Collen) asked me my strengths and weaknesses,” McDonald said. “I told her my weaknesses, and she said, ‘It doesn’t matter. Keep doing what you’re good at.’”

McDonald followed the choice of star guard Chennedy Carter a year ago, and it gives the Dream a young core in the backcourt to build their team around. Collen said the selection of another ballhandler would be a “security blanket” if the organization were to lose guards Odyssey Sims, Courtney Williams or Tiffany Hayes to free agency in 2022.

Another year, another big-name point guard drafted by the Dream. The Dream’s backcourt for 2021 carries three speed merchants, as McDonald joins two players she thinks of fondly, Carter and Williams.

“I’m really excited to play with them,” McDonald said. “I can’t wait to get to work in practice with those two. They’re dogs.”

The Dream’s selection of McDonald was the first early surprise of the draft. There were many projections that pegged the 5-foot-6 guard at the fifth or sixth pick, but Collen and her staff saw a quality in McDonald that they couldn’t pass up in search of long-term plans.

McDonald erupted while carrying her Arizona team to the NCAA title game in San Antonio. She made her statement with 26 points and seven rebounds in a victory over powerhouse Connecticut in the Final Four, but those performances were nothing new for the Pac-12 Player of the Year. McDonald also had tournament performances of 31 points against Texas A&M and 33 against Indiana.

McDonald averaged 20.6 points and four assists in her senior season at Arizona. Her late surge, however, allowed the California native to climb up draft boards.

Those showings, along with McDonald’s approach to the game, caught Collen’s eye. The Dream sent in the selection to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert on Thursday evening. Now, the Dream are lovin’ it.

Collen hinted at McDonald as a possibility even when the Dream were in so-called exploratory mode and continued to contact draftees. The team liked McDonald’s “killer instinct,” as her new head coach put it.

The Dream’s questions remain with McDonald’s size and whether she can continue to produce in bunches, but her prowess on defense has been the backbone of the newest Dream player for her entire college career.

The lockdown defense likely serves as a starting point for Collen and her staff to begin development.

“I’m a two-way player, but I put defense above my offensive abilities,” McDonald said. “I want to bring that spark and do whatever I can.”

The Dream’s selection of McDonald followed Dallas’ choices of Texas forward Charli Collier and Finnish post presence Awak Kuier.

The Dream have the 15th and 27th selections, respectively, in the second and third rounds of the draft. A maximum of 12 players can make a roster by the season opener against Connecticut on May 14.

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