September 22, 2022 

How Aari McDonald came back home to Arizona women’s basketball

Coach Adia Barnes sings McDonald's praises for the role

When just about anyone in the women’s basketball space brings up Aari McDonald, her legacy of leading the Cinderella-story University of Arizona to a Championship game in 2021 closely follows her. Which is why it makes sense she’s returning to Tucson.

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“Tucson loves her, the University of Arizona loves her. She is a Wildcat, so it just made perfect sense,” Arizona Head Coach Adia Barnes told The Next.

On Sep 8, Arizona announced that the Atlanta Dream guard would be taking on the new role of Director of Recruiting during her off-season.

According to McDonald and Barnes, the idea of this position sprouted a year ago. But Barnes wanted McDonald to experience a season overseas, citing her own long overseas career. However, after leaving her Hungarian team in October 2021, it was clear overseas play wasn’t right for McDonald.

“I just feel like overseas wasn’t for me, but I gave it a fair shot and it’s not for everybody,” McDonald told The Next. “So I’ll still be in the States, I’ll be close to my family, still involved in around the sport that I love, and just honestly, helping to mentor people and just trying to bring some great talent to Arizona.”

McDonald is still new on the job, so she hasn’t begun her full scope of responsibilities, but she assured The Next spreadsheets are involved.

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Barnes explained she will organize recruits, take on projects, help out in coaching meetings and when she’s thoroughly settled, speak with recruits. 

But why is McDonald right for the role? Barnes explained their tight relationship, McDonald’s intimate knowledge of the program and her future.

“I trust her and have a really good relationship with her,” Barnes said. “I thought it’d be good for her to learn another skill so she’s prepared for after basketball life.”

McDonald agrees.

“Not to toot my own horn, but I did a lot of special things here. I feel like I can sell the school to players and pretty much convince them like the proof is in the pudding,” McDonald said. “If you’re bought in with Coach Barnes and the program and want to come to a real college town then I feel like Arizona’s the spot.”

Although some may gripe about McDonald’s immediate connection with her March Madness run even in her second pro season, McDonald is far from upset about it.

“It’s a blessing, honestly,” McDonald replied to a question about being tied to her historic run. “I mean, it feels good. I’m glad that that run still rings bells, and I think that everybody still mentioning that’ll grab attention to the school and the program.”

This is core to why McDonald is the person for the role. To the world, she and Barnes are the beacon of success at a growing program like Arizona, and according to them both, those are the moments that sell recruits.

Beyond her hero status in the Grand Canyon State, McDonald’s two years of professional play with the Dream makes her a knowledgeable asset about the pros. And even though she won’t be playing on a team this summer, she plans to continue to better her game.

“Coach Barnes and the other staff are well aware that the WNBA is my main job and that’s my number one priority,” McDonald said.

Although there’s an increasing trend of WNBA players joining college coaching staffs in the offseason, McDonald’s move into the recruiting move is less precedented. The diversity of jobs goes to show the mounting number of roles for WNBA players who have long been forced to go overseas.

And in a year when offseason play turned to tragedy, stateside opportunities become even more imperative. And according to McDonald, working at Arizona allows her access to many resources, from a nutritionist to court reps. 

She explained she’ll be focusing on her game plenty this summer, which proves this opportunity even more unique because it emphasizes on-court time, with the bounty of resources often superior to a WNBA team.

Although McDonald is currently overseeing recruitment, coaching is the goal.

“I took this recruiting role to just to learn the behind-the-scenes… This is helping me along the way to become a coach,” McDonald said. “Coach Barnes knows that, and she’s going to take me under her wing while I’m here, just to help me and hopefully show her what’ll be down the road when I’m done playing basketball.”

And Barnes is on the same page.

“So my plan for her is to mentor her. I want her to play as long as she can,” Barnes said. “If she plays 10 years, get her involved in some capacity, learn this, see if she wants to do it, and then find [her] a role.”

And although the Dream’s future is uncertain this year, after her Sixth Player of the Year case, McDonald will likely stay with the team in their continued rebuild. Only time will tell her impact in Arizona or Atlanta.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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