April 16, 2021 

Aari-zona to Aatlanta: what Aari McDonald brings to the Dream

And get to know rising forward Raquel Carrera

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Aari McDonald #2 of the Arizona Wildcats celebrates her team’s win over the Connecticut Huskies in the semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on April 2, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ben Solomon via Getty Images)

How Aari got here

There are tournament stars, and there are tournament runs. Then there’s whatever Aari McDonald just did in the month of March.

Arizona’s senior leader took the world by storm in the tournament, bringing the third-seeded Wildcats to their first-ever Final Four and Championship appearances. That run helped McDonald’s stock rise exponentially in the WNBA Draft, where the Dream selected her with the third overall pick. Her fit in Atlanta banks on more than just March and media madness, though — head coach Nicki Collen has been coveting McDonald’s craft and character for months.

“With Aari, we were very much in a ‘best available’ situation,” Collen said. “We just really felt like the combination of who she is, how she plays, the pace that she plays, [and] the energy that she plays with makes her a good fit.”

Collen and the Atlanta front office planned to go for the “best player available” at each spot in this draft, feeling that the team was set on depth at every position. Though Atlanta was hardly short on charisma before the draft, McDonald adds another level of energy and two-way play to a backcourt that’s already chock-full of enticing talent.

“That sounds scary already,” McDonald said of her pairing with Chennedy Carter. “We haven’t even touched the court together yet. I’m really excited. I’ve watched Chennedy a lot in her collegiate years and her first pro year. I’m just really excited to play with her, also Courtney Williams. So I can’t wait to get to practice with them.”

McDonald averaged 20.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists during her senior year. Her scoring figures only went up in March and April, as she scored at least 20 points in each of Arizona’s last four contests, from the Sweet 16 to the title game.

“She’s going to have to earn her minutes, but we feel like, when we look at how this team plays that she’ll fit in,” Collen said. “Knowing we have a lot of free agents a year from now … it’s kind of a nod to the future, but I think she’s one of those players who will do anything we ask of her.”

Her role in Atlanta

The Dream have needed outside shooting for a while now, and though their brand-new rookie has a checkered history from beyond the arc, the recent evidence is certainly encouraging. McDonald knocked down 34.5 percent of her outside shots in her final season at Arizona, and her volume at 6.3 attempts per game suggests the shot is apt to translate to the next level.

It isn’t all peachy from deep, though. McDonald’s perimeter percentages hovered in the high 20s across her sophomore and junior seasons and are coupled with a good (but not great) 76.5 percent mark at the free-throw line.

Though her regular-season efficiency is nothing to scoff at, Collen expects that McDonald’s percentages will fall somewhere between the regular season and tournament marks.

“It was a team that she had to take a lot of difficult shots,” Collen said of Aari’s role at Arizona. “She had to take a lot of late shot clock shots … Is she a 50 percent 3-point shooter? Probably not. Is she a 28 percent 3-point shooter? Probably not.”

With her central role in the Wildcats offense — McDonald’s usage rate ranked seventh out of almost 3,000 Division I players, according to Her Hoop Stats — she didn’t have the chance to operate with the most careful shot selection. Playing off of Carter, Courtney Williams, Cheyenne Parker and Tiffany Hayes will likely change that.

Though McDonald’s role will be lighter in Atlanta’s deep backcourt, she still has to refine the edges of her game, especially as a smaller player. The senior shot 44.1 percent from inside the arc this past season, including 52.3 percent from within 10 feet For reference, those are each a hair above the Division I average.

The good news for Atlanta is that her game is littered with isolation shots from beyond the 3-point line, which has become one of the most coveted skills in the modern WNBA. Additionally, neither Carter nor Williams have any problem getting to the rim, so McDonald will have time to work on interior and midrange scoring. It wouldn’t be a surprise if we see her in frequent drive-and-kick action given her playmaking and shiftiness at the position.

Now, anything but short on depth, the Dream will always have at least two capable shot-creating guards on the floor.

McDonald loves to get her shots off in isolation, and at Arizona, she proved that she can operate with or without the ball. That becomes increasingly important if the Dream wish to operate in a more complex motion offense, with Carter, Williams and McDonald all acting as serious threats to pass or score. When we look at her assist profile at Arizona, we can see that she distributed the ball evenly to the bigs and perimeter compatriots.

Aari McDonald assist chart via CBBAnalytics.

Though her height has justly been listed as a knock during the draft process, McDonald proved she could thrive against WNBA-level talent in the tournament and has a track record of savvy defensive play. Despite being listed at just 5’5, McDonald is a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and can bring intensity as an on-ball or team defender.

For a player with the drive of McDonald, Collen doesn’t seem too concerned.

“As a 5’5 former point guard, I don’t feel like she’s too short,” Collen said. “I always say we’re vertically challenged, but if you have heart, she’s so fast, and we’re not going to ask her to guard six-foot players. But I can tell you this about her, I think if you asked her to guard a six-foot player, she’d get on top, she’d fight like heck, because that’s who she is as a player.”

“Oh, yeah, for sure. I’m a two-way player, but I value defense,” McDonald said. “I put that above my offensive abilities. I know my defense, that creates offense, and I just want to be that spark for my teammates always. I know I can beat the break, we can just score. We can always be better because we’re playing defense, and I just want to lead my team and just do whatever.”

Atlanta’s selection also runs as extra insurance if a key cog in the Dream machine goes down with an injury. Though predicting injuries is a somewhat fruitless pursuit, last season’s bubble proved that depth can make all the difference during a chaotic season. 

The biggest concerns still lie with McDonald’s height and efficiency, and there’s a reason why she wasn’t mocked at the 3-spot prior to March. The jump to the WNBA will certainly amplify any additional shortcomings in her game.

But it’s difficult to bet against a player like McDonald, and Atlanta is getting one of the hardest-working players in the draft. She was drafted for more than just her on-court talent, praised thoroughly as a character pick throughout Thursday night.

“No one will say a bad word about Aari,” Collen said. I think when we were going into this draft, it was about depth, it was about the future, it was about character. She checks all those boxes. We don’t talk enough sometimes about culture at this level. But good teams have good culture.”

And good social media game.

Iron sharpens iron, and if nothing else, practices between Carter and McDonald could bring the tandem to an even higher level. At The Next, we can only promise to get her name right.

Round 2 & 3

With the 15th pick in the draft, the Dream selected 6’3 Spanish forward Raquel Carrera. The 19-year old prospect will be draft-and-stashed according to Collen, who cited limited roster spots in the upcoming season.

At her size, Carerra is a quick-twitch athlete who has shown the ability to run the floor and score on the inside and beyond the 3-point line. She is currently averaging 6.8 points and 3.3 rebounds overseas for Valencia BC.

“Raquel [Carrera] was a personal favorite of mine,” she said. “I’ve watched her play with Valencia all season long and she never takes a bad shot, she has range from the 3-point line. She’s someone that won’t come over this season, she’ll be training with the Spanish National Team, through EuroBasket and then the Olympics… We kind of knew at 19 [years old] what she’s capable of. I feel like when I watch her play she makes good decisions, she makes open shots, [and] she makes her teammates better.”

Atlanta finished its draft up with the 27th pick, selecting Northwestern guard Lindsey Pulliam in the third round. Pulliam averaged 16.5 points and 4.2 rebounds last season as a midrange assassin and showcased elite shot creation and ball control with one of the lowest turnover rates in the country.

“Lindsey Pulliam, I think as a junior, was probably one of those players high on people’s lists for Big 10 Player of the Year. [She’s a] really good midrange player, has made threes. She’s someone who will challenge us at camp and will have a chance to prove herself.”

As Bailey Johnson broke down in her draft preview, it’s unclear if Atlanta has the space for a late selection on its roster.

But for Atlanta, much like many other teams in the league, things aren’t quite that straightforward from a salary cap standpoint. Excluding the players on training camp contracts, the Dream currently have 11 players under contract and just over $50,000 in cap space. The No. 3 overall pick is due a salary of $68,000, and league minimum salary is $58,710, which means Atlanta will likely carry fewer than the maximum 12 players for this season.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream and Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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