Aari McDonald reaping benefits of offseason with local trainer Robert Swain

Dream guard Aari McDonald (2) attempts a shot against Connecticut Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman (2) during the first half at The Gateway Center at College Park, Friday, July 15, 2022, in College Park. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Dream guard Aari McDonald (2) attempts a shot against Connecticut Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman (2) during the first half at The Gateway Center at College Park, Friday, July 15, 2022, in College Park. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Three weeks after Dream guard Aari McDonald made the trek across the Atlantic Ocean to play offseason basketball in Hungary, she booked a return flight.

She didn’t play to her standard while suiting up for UNI Györ. She missed home, her soon-to-be husband and all of the people she loved. Most of all, McDonald realized that she had never had a break. For her entire basketball career, namely the past five years as a college and professional athlete, McDonald had worn a uniform year-round. That routine grew tiresome, and the young guard, the third pick in the 2021 WNBA draft, saw the offseason after her rookie campaign as an opening for rest.

“I’m an introvert, so peace to me is being in my own space,” McDonald said. “Me being happy and doing things I love.”

McDonald took time to visit her family across the country. She and her husband were married in September and have settled into an Atlanta-area home. McDonald does things that are mindless, too, such as word searches and crossword puzzles. In those moments, she found an escape to take her mind off of the sport.

That didn’t mean basketball ever took a back seat, though, nor did McDonald want it to.

Because she didn’t play overseas, which the Dream anticipated as a key piece in her development, McDonald needed some source of teaching. Assistant general manager Darius Taylor is deeply intertwined within multiple levels of basketball, and offered a recommendation for Robert Swain.

At that point, the training began. They met every day, with the exception of some weekends, at a gym Swain leases for his academy in Atlanta. They would work for three-plus hours per day, and McDonald sometimes pushed for more work.

“There are rigors to my training,” Swain told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There were hours of me yelling at her, pushing her or advising her on how to get better. She started off as a client, but became more than that, almost immediately. I became an uncle or a big brother figure to her.”

McDonald quickly noticed the reward of her unique offseason work. The second-year guard is a candidate for the league’s Sixth Woman of the Year award and has been a piece of the Dream’s pulse as the team fights for a playoff spot for the first time since 2018.

McDonald has averaged 10.9 points per game while shooting at a 36% clip from beyond the 3-point line. She posted 18 points in her most-recent performance off of the bench in a loss at Los Angeles, and carries her hot streak along the West Coast as the Dream awaits a Sunday game in Seattle.

Over a six-game stretch in June, McDonald scored double figures in each game, including a career-best 20 points (a total she has hit twice) at Chicago.

“We allow Aari to be herself and take advantage of the opportunities,” Dream coach Tanisha Wright said. “She’s done a really good job of letting the game slow down for her and pick and choose what to do. She’s taken feedback and applied it.”

In her rookie season, McDonald played significant minutes, but did so in a Dream season full of ups and downs, three head coaching changes and only eight victories.

McDonald knew her offseason of growth would be important. Although it took an unconventional path of leaving Europe and joining forces with an acclaimed local trainer in Swain, McDonald had intensified motivation to return to the Dream as a different player.

“I didn’t think I was playing to my best abilities last year,” McDonald said. “I didn’t contribute much to my team’s success. I wanted to be more confident, play within myself and focus on team ball. My motivation is to take advantage of what I’m given.”

Swain’s ties to the college game run deep, which is why he had a relationship with Taylor, which led to the recommendation to McDonald. Swain has worked with a number of former University of Georgia players, a group of defending national champions at South Carolina, WNBA draftee Khayla Pointer and his daughter, Hailee Swain, who is a Stanford commitment in the 2025 recruiting class.

McDonald, though, is his first trainee with experience at the WNBA level. Swain, a former University of Connecticut player, also had relationships with a number of McDonald’s current and former coaches.

“Automatically, I knew he was cool,” McDonald said. “I don’t let everybody in my circle. We connected in ways that I didn’t even know. Now he’s family.”

Swain and McDonald have fine-tuned numerous aspects of her game. They worked persistently on her jump shot, which has paid off with a greatly increased 3-point shooting percentage. McDonald also possesses a lot of speed, so Swain worked with her on how to use it appropriately, when she should accelerate and the moments to harness it and slow down.

Her improvements show in each game. Against Las Vegas, McDonald knifed her way into the paint for a finger-roll layup with an ease that wouldn’t have presented itself a season ago.

McDonald continues to receive feedback from her trainer, too. After games, Swain will offer advice on what McDonald did well and how she can improve. McDonald’s teammates notice the benefits of her work, too.

“She’s grown so much from last season in her mentality and being a leader,” Dream forward Cheyenne Parker said. “She’s controlling the tempo of the team, and has a lot of confidence in that.”

McDonald has become a force off of the bench and has emerged as one of the better reserve threats in the WNBA. According to Her Hoop Stats, only Brionna Jones (13.8 points per game) averages more scoring than McDonald for players who play primarily off of the bench.

She didn’t get there in a textbook fashion. A moment of rest and a deep-rooted bond with a new trainer got her to that point. Now, they see the potential as endless.

“She will be someone who can start at point guard for any team in the WNBA,” Swain said. “She will be an All-Star in this league.”