Aari McDonald came to Arizona as a quiet teenager. During her years as a star in Tucson, she began to find her voice. Now, she aims to continue that growth by taking on the role of Director of Recruiting Operations for the Wildcats.
“I’m not very talkative,” McDonald said. “I think it will help me get out of my comfort zone and talk to high school players and also talk to the girls on the team.”
His new boss, head coach Adia Barnesbelieves those skills will help McDonald when she returns to play for the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA each summer.
“These are areas where I think it’s about growing and improving,” Barnes said. “If she can grow into that, she just gets better overall. And I think those are areas … that will carry over to the point guard position in the WNBA because you have to communicate. You have to be in uncomfortable situations. That’s when you grow. So I think all of these things are going to help her and I think… she’ll see a really big difference.
McDonald’s history with the program should also make a difference for Arizona. Barnes and his staff have already introduced the highest-rated class of 2022 of all time. The 2023 class is ranked as the No. 1 class in the country at the start, but the head coach wants even more. She and her former player believe they can do it together.
“I’m excited to talk to young players,” McDonald said. “I can identify with them in so many ways. I have been in their shoes and they want to be in my shoes in the future. So like Adia said there is no better scout and I have played my career here. And so I’ve done some great things under Coach Barnes and I think I can really sell the school and get the kids to commit to Coach Barnes and the program.
There are also other benefits for both parties. McDonald cannot train with the players because she is not allowed to coach on the pitch, but she can interact with them and mentor them.
“She’s going to help us,” Barnes said. “Players, that’s something I’ve been saying for 20 years. They didn’t know I was playing and never watched me play, and that’s on deaf ears. It’s like your coach is saying it all time, but when someone does it that you watch and identify with and follow and like as a player, they say it, it hits a lot harder.
On the McDonald’s side, she will benefit from access to training facilities, nutritionists and other services that WNBA players typically have to pay for out of pocket.
There is a possible wrinkle in the arrangement. McDonald will be absent from the schedule from May through at least August each year while she plays in the WNBA. Barnes doesn’t see that as a problem, however. She said the head coach’s special assistant Betty Shelby with assistant coaches Ashley Davis and Erin Grant will take over the recruitment department during these few months of absence from McDonald’s.
The plan to bring McDonald’s back to Tucson had been in the works for months, but it took the player a while to decide what she was going to do this offseason. Europe didn’t agree with her last year, but she also had the option of staying in Atlanta and training in the offseason. In the end, she decided McKale Center was the place to be.
There were administrative hurdles to overcome. Barnes said they needed to file paperwork with the Pac-12 to allow the professional player to return to her alma mater.
His former teammates were surprised when the news finally broke.
“I think on my first day, Cate (Reese) was like, ‘What are you doing here? “, McDonald said. “And I didn’t want to tell anyone right now, but I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m just visiting. I’m here for a little while. And then when it’s out , she said to me: ‘Are you really there, A?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah’, so Cate is happy to see me again too.
As McDonald steps into her new role, she knows she’s already made progress in the areas that are important to her success, but she’s not done yet.
“I’ve grown a lot, especially thinking back to my sophomore year,” McDonald said. “I felt very comfortable with my teammates and Coach Barnes had been preaching to me for years, like, ‘you have to come out of your shell.’ And then also (Atlanta Dream) Coach (Tanisha Wright) always says that as a point guard you have to demand respect from your teammates And so that made me want to talk more, especially about being the point guard. game and the extension of the coach on the pitch. So I think I’ve made my way but I’m not where I want to be.
She thinks she can make it happen by returning to Tucson.