Aari McDonald: Living the Atlanta Dream - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Aari McDonald: Living the Atlanta Dream

Aari McDonald: Living the Atlanta Dream

By Isabelle Lee


Because greatness can sneak up on you … and fast.

By Isabelle Lee

At just 22 years old, Aari McDonald is making serious waves in the WBNA. But she’s no stranger to being a star on the court. She won Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year while at Arizona and was drafted third overall by the Atlanta Dream in the 2021 WBNA Draft. This week on The Carlos Watson Show, join Carlos and McDonald as they discuss being an outstanding player and an even better person. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

Leading on the Court 

Carlos Watson: Where do you think you’ve learned your best leadership lessons? 

Aari McDonald: I’m not going to lie. It’s hard. I’m not the most talkative person. I’m an introvert, like, I don’t talk. I think in college, my coaches were like, “You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” And that kind of stuck with me, especially being a point guard. I’m like the quarterback of a team. I’m the extension of the coach on the floor, so my teammates are going to look at me when they are facing adversity or things aren’t going well. Like, I have to be that person to direct my teammates, whether things are going good or bad. I mean, I did have to step into that role, and I had to perfect it.

I mean, now, I’ve been in the pros, and I’m playing with the vets, and I’m the point guard, like there’s a lot of pressure on the point guard in the league, especially like from the college game. I have to be so vocal, and I’m still working on that. I have ways to go, but I think I’ve definitely improved as being vocal.

Watson: You’re 22, right? And you’ve got grown women now who have been in the league. And in fact, you’re coming, arguably, to the most important franchise, the Atlanta franchise that, during Black Lives Matter, kind of set the tone for everything in many ways. What’s it like for a young buck like you to try and come in there and be the quarterback of the team?

McDonald: It’s tough, I’m not going to lie to you. I’m still trying to learn my teammates, figure them out, figure out where they’re best successful on the court, and where they’re efficient. So it’s been a tough couple of days, but I’m warming up to my teammates. And they told me, it was, like, “Hey.” They call me rook. “Hey, rook, tell me where to go. We’re going to follow you. Just tell me.” So I’m like, “Let me come out of my shell.” And so I think I’ve done that the past few days of training camp. Like, I got more comfortable, and I’m adapting really fast.

Leading off the Court

Watson: Tell me a little bit about this last year and what it was like to be a college student during all the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the Ahmaud Arbery protests. Was that something that was on your mind? Did that feel very far away? Did it impact you in any way?

McDonald: Yeah, it was tough. Because being an African American woman,  it was tough, and it was hard for me at times. I couldn’t even watch the news or I will stay off social media because that’s all that I will see on my timeline. I’ll be nervous for my family members to go out and about, knowing that they could possibly get stopped by the police. That was very frightening. So during that time, my anxiety was up. I was like, “Oh, Lord.” So literally, whenever a family member just left the house, I prayed for their safety, because that was really scary. The court is like my safe haven, so I try to get that off my mind. But I mean, off the court, you have to face reality. It was tough.

Watson: Did you have any interesting conversations, either good or bad, or just interesting about race over the last year with people who were not Black?

McDonald: I would say like with my team, we had Zoom calls. We were obviously a diverse team. We have people from different parts of, like different countries. We have people all over, and so we just pretty much told them, like, in the Zoom call, we’re like, “We know that it’s a tough situation.” We knew that they weren’t going to say anything, so we had to initiate it, “Hey, if you want to talk to us, we’re here. If you need to know anything, we’re also here. We can talk.” If you want to have a tough situation or conversation, we can have that. I mean, this is a safe space and we respect everyone’s responses. 

Getting the Recognition They Deserve

Watson: Do you think that female sports are about to have their moment?  Do you feel like it’s going to take some more time before it becomes a more popular thing?

McDonald:  Yeah. I think that it’s going to change. I feel like we came a long way as women. Everyone’s starting to take notice. I mean, not just for the efforts they do often for leading protests and stuff like that. But like, these women can actually hoop. I mean, the support that the women’s team has gotten over the past year, it’s incredible. So I think it’s only going to go up here.

Watson: Who’s the toughest player you’ve ever played against personally?

McDonald: I would probably have to say Jordin Canada, my freshman year when she was at UCLA. She’s quick, just like me, like lightning quick. She’s crafty too. So she definitely kept me on my heels.

Watson: I know you have speed, but will you get physical? 

McDonald: I am a physical player. Obviously, I had to kind of not show that to stay out of foul shows in the college game. I’m glad that I’m in the league where refs are not going to call for ticky-tack stuff. I could be more physical. 

Watson: My understanding is that you’re one of those people a little bit like Steph Curry, who you’re in really good conditioning, which gives you an advantage versus other players, because you don’t get tired at the end of the games like they do. What’s your secret? What helps you? 

McDonald: I will say it’s my natural genes and also I hold myself accountable. I know that I need to be on the court for almost 40 minutes. So, I go do extra conditioning. So, a teammate that has to run and have more sprints than others, I will run with them. I mean, I need it. I’m always running as a point guard.

Watson: Which WNBA player are you looking forward to meeting?

McDonald: I’ll probably say Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, have to be. Their ex-college teammate is one of my old assistant coaches, Morgan Valley, so we always heard about them. But to actually like formally meet them and play against them? I can’t wait.

Watson: What’s the best shot you’ve ever made in your career?

McDonald: Can I have two?

Watson: Oh, yes, you can have two.

McDonald: I’ll probably say beating Stanford at Arizona. I’ll probably say that one for the game-winner, and also that three. Now the Yukon game, the tournament before, I crossed my arms at half court. Those two are probably my biggest shots ever.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories