There were times throughout last season when Ari MacDonald questioned her place in the WNBA.
The 5’6″ guard starred in Arizona, Attracting national crowds in March 2021 as it led the Wildcats to the National Championship game. After her team took second place, Dream picked her number three in Draft 21, wanting to make her the centerpiece of the franchise.
But her quick adaptation to the professional rank did not come easily. She missed her first seven attempts to shoot the field and did not score a point until her third game. While Atlanta was running through three head coaches, MacDonald went from averaging 33.6 minutes during her first season in college to just 16.4 minutes as a professional rookie. “It was mental,” MacDonald says of last year’s challenges. “It was nothing physical.”
Any doubt of herself has been silenced this season, with McDonald’s thriving under first-year coach Tanisha Wright. MacDonald now plays roughly 26 minutes per game, while doubling — or nearly doubling — her scoring output (from 6.3 per game as a beginner to 11.1 in her sophomore); average rifling (0.8 to 1.8); and field shooting attempts for each competition (5.8 to 8.4). Atlanta has been one of the league’s biggest surprises throughout the first half of the season, and has played a huge role in the league’s play-off image. McDonald’s renewed presence is one reason for this.
“I wanted to reintroduce myself to the masses,” she says. “I definitely felt forgotten last year. I couldn’t showcase what I could do against some of the best women in the world. This year, I’m just taking it seriously and showing off my hard work every night.”
Despite her uneven adjustment last summer, MacDonald was named to the W’s All-Rookie team. She smiles, though, when asked to think about what that means, saying, “It’s really a great achievement, but I’m like, ‘There’s so much I could have done.'” “
Throughout the vacation, she has sought to learn from studying film, trying to better understand the different readings of the circumstances, knowing when to slow down and when to play at a crazier pace, the latter being one of her strong suits. Wright praised McDonald’s ability to change gears, noting that there are times when she would put McDonald’s in the game to change the pace. But MacDonald, herself, says she doesn’t think she’s gotten any faster, just because she has a better understanding of how to use her ability. “I’d say I’m going back to being a slasher,” she says. “The game has slowed down for me.”
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One of the most important parts of McDonald’s continuous development is its ability to succeed no matter what role it is required to play. For six games, while goalkeeper Erica Wheeler was out with a foot injury, MacDonald was signed into the starting lineup. In them, she averaged 16 points, 4.7 assists, and 1.7 assists, all while displaying a turbulent defense on the ball that was a staple in her repertoire.
When Wheeler returned in late June, MacDonald returned to the bench, upsetting rival ballplayers. While her total minutes decreased, her impact did not. Until now Out of the eight best three-player squads on the team by net rating (played at least 100 minutes)McDonald is part of seven of them.
“I’ve told her so many times, ‘It’s very hard to do what you’re doing and only be in the league for two years,'” Wheeler says.
Wheeler only met MacDonald last season, but the 31-year-old goalkeeper has been a regular source of advice for MacDonald, 23, even though the two play in the same situation. The way Wheeler looks at it, the more competition between the two, the better the player and team will be.
On June 17, MacDonald scored a career high of 20 points against defending champion Skye. She says this game has helped prove that she can get into her position and thrive against the biggest competition in the league. “Bring back that dog mindset and know I can compete with the best of them,” she says.
Since then, MacDonald has scored five times in double digits and lost more than eight points in all eight competitions. Although she returned to the bench role, she was no longer lost among the franchise reserves.
“She knows what she’s capable of,” Wheeler says. “She just let the world know what she can do.”
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