Aari McDonald: A phenom in Tucson


Arizona v Oregon
Aari McDonald led Arizona in points and assists in each of the last two seasons. | Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Aari McDonald’s rise to the top has been speedy like her and she’s the latest Pac-12 player with unfinished business. She’s hungry to take the Arizona Wildcats to new heights.

Aari McDonald is a 5-foot-6 guard out of Fresno, California who has stayed true to the West Coast. After high school, she went off to college at the University of Washington in Seattle and has since transferred to the University of Arizona in Tucson where she has become one of the best players in the country.

McDonald was listed as a point guard coming out of high school, but is more well known for her scoring than her distributing and last year won the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award, which is given to the top shooting guard in the nation. She was also a WBCA, AP and USBWA All-American and a Wade Trophy finalist. She averaged 20.6 points per game in 2019-20 and 24.1 in 2018-19. Her assist numbers are not to be overlooked — she’s dished out 4.2 a game over the past two seasons and has secured 6.1 rebounds per contest in the same timeframe, not bad for her height and position.

Take into consideration that McDonald was also the 2020 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and you can appreciate how rare a talent she is.

Pre-college

McDonald’s talent garnered attention very early in her life. As a kid, she attended a basketball camp run by Bruce Bowen, a former NBA player and champion who is also from the Fresno area. At the camp, McDonald met her future high school coach Bill Engel who was impressed with her even back then.

Here’s the story Engel told Your Central Valley, a TV station in Fresno:

“She was maybe seven or eight, and I had her group. And I was telling her, I said, ‘wow, whatever coach gets you in high school is gonna be one lucky coach.’ And I had no idea I would come back to coach her. No idea whatsoever. … I’ve had Bruce Bowen that went to the pros, I’ve had Andre Sims. She’s as good a player, male or female, as I’ve had.”

McDonald started for Engel as a freshman at Bullard High School and averaged nearly 24 points per game. As a junior at Brookside Christian High School she was good for 26.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per contest, which led to her becoming the No. 55 Hoop Gurlz prospect in the nation for the high school class of 2016.

Highlights: McDonald at her best in high school

College at Washington and Arizona

McDonald chose to go Washington and as a Husky freshman played alongside NCAAW all-time points leader Kelsey Plum. McDonald was third on the team with a scoring average of 9.8 and started 21 games for a team that went to the Sweet Sixteen.

McDonald transferred to Arizona after her freshman season. She sat out the 2017-18 season due to transfer rules and then burst onto the national scene as a redshirt sophomore in 2018-19.

Highlights: McDonald makes a name for herself in college

The past two seasons were spectacular for McDonald and she was projected to be a first round draft pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft.

However, a lingering leg injury sparked a worry in McDonald that she may not be 100 percent as a WNBA rookie. She opted to let herself recover and has returned to Arizona for her senior season.

The cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament also fueled her decision to stay in Tucson.

Arizona had a phenomenal 2019-20 season, finishing 24-7 overall and holding its own in an incredibly competitive Pac-12 with a conference record of 12-6. The Wildcats would have been a high seed in the NCAA Tournament — they were a 2-seed in Swish Appeal’s hypothetical bracket — and who knows how far they would have gone.

The future

McDonald is thus left with unfinished business much like the Oregon Ducks’ Sabrina Ionescu was after the 2018-19 season before she decided to return for 2019-20. McDonald and Rhyne Howard of the Kentucky Wildcats are now replacing Ionescu as the faces of women’s college basketball for the 2020-21 season.

Meanwhile, Arizona as a team is No. 7 in the nation, returns McDonald’s co-stars Cate Reese and Sam Thomas and brings in even more talent from the transfer portal. Don’t count them out of the Final Four conversation.

On top of all the great things going on for McDonald, she is also engaged — her fiancé Devon Brewer proposed to her after Arizona’s Pac-12 Tournament semifinal game last season, a game that her old teammate, Plum, was at as an analyst.

“I’m so proud of you,” Plum told McDonald after the game. “It’s been amazing to watch you.”

Interview: McDonald talks about her engagement and her basketball future postgame

McDonald has one more season to be amazing at the college level. Watch out for her and Arizona.