To put it bluntly, the Atlanta Dream were a mess last season.
Off-court drama, season-long suspensions and poor play culminated
in one of the worst seasons in Atlanta's franchise history.
Things are different for the Dream in 2022. Tanisha Wright's
established a hard-nosed defensive identity that's embodied by the
roster. The team features more veteran players and is led by the
top selection in the 2022 WNBA Draft, Rhyne Howard.
Howard has rightfully taken many of the headlines out
of Atlanta, as she has all but locked up the Rookie of the Year
award and has a good chance at an All-Star nod. Howard's off-ball
play and shooting gravity have made her an incredibly lethal and
dynamic offensive outlet from day one, with the potential for
extremely high levels of shot creation.
However, lately, the play of Aari McDonald has shone through in
droves. The No. 3 overall pick in 2021, McDonald struggled to find
her footing last season as a rookie, but the flashes of yesteryear
have parlayed into more consistent creation and play in 2022.
McDonald was already playing more this year and had cemented a
higher place in the rotation, but with Erica Wheeler out due to an
injury suffered against the Seattle Storm, McDonald's commanded an
even greater chunk of playing time and usage. While Wheeler's
absence hurts a great deal in the moment (get well soon!),
McDonald's expanded role has turned my head.
There are viable reasons for McDonald to come off the bench:
Kristy Wallace has a bit more size, and she and Wheeler have fit
pretty well together as a starting backcourt. Wallace is more of an
off-ball guard and ball-mover, so loading up the starting lineup
with all of Atlanta's shot creation can make subbing patterns a
little different (not saying I necessarily agree, rather that I get
According to PBP Stats, lineups featuring both McDonald and
Wheeler outscore opposition by 9.7 points per 100 possessions,
largely on the back of a stellar 83.75 defensive rating crafted in
the 120 minutes they've played together. When Tiffany Hayes (a
really good player) returns, it will make things even more
interesting, as she's started in all but seven games she's played
for Atlanta since 2014. I actually think Hayes' eventual return
could lead to more Wheeler/McDonald lineups, as there'd be less
worry about when it comes to staggering ball-handlers. Regardless,
I can't wait for more of that duo, and I'm sure Coach Wright wants
to see more too.
McDonald's confidence has been awesome to see. She scored 15
points just three times last year; it was her season-high as a
rookie. This year, she has already surpassed that three times. In
her three games as a starter, McDonald is averaging 17.3 points per
game on 56.2% True Shooting along with 5.0 assists per game.
The best way I've found to describe Aari's game is uninterrupted. She is always moving on
or off the ball. If she's walled off, she's pivoting and heading a
new direction or moving the ball, but she's also been quite good at
picking her spots to attack the basket. Despite her small stature,
she puts a dent in the defense in a way no one else does for the
Dream. Her swarming nature collapses lanes and opens pathways for
off-ball players to attack that wouldn't be there without her
ability to generate paint touches and rim pressure.
This possession early last night against the Chicago Sky is
indicative of McDonald's persistence as an offensive presence.
Even though she misses the attempt at the rim, her lack of
indecisiveness and ability to make plays with quickness gives her
and the Dream an advantage. The defense takes a half-second to
breath after the initial stop. McDonald erases that half-second
stoppage to make the most of her skill set. She puts awesome
velocity on passes, often throws well into the shooting pocket and
has very good awareness of where her outlets are.
A few possessions later, Aari finds herself in a late-clock
situation without the ball. AD gets a ball screen from Cheyenne
Parker and the Sky late switch to neutralize the action. But wait!
There's an open Aari McDonald in the slot!
Replacing/relocating to the perimeter on a drive or roll is a
great way to catch a defender napping, and McDonald executes it
Toggling on and off the ball with efficacy makes it that much
harder to guard you (cough cough, Kelsey Plum this season). Adding
in movement off the ball along with considerable on-ball creation
leads to swelling gravity as defenses account for her as a
The Dream are third in the WNBA in pace, according to Her Hoop
Stats, and McDonald plays a significant part in that. To say that
Aari flies down the court to push the break would be an
understatement. She constantly looks for ways to put the defense on
Advantage maintenance is arguably as important as advantage
creation, and McDonald embodies that perspective.
She has such a good first step, taking Allie Quigley off the
dribble without a screen and generating a clean paint touch before
the quick flip to Parker.
If McDonald just jogs to the perimeter to respace and set
herself, then this is likely not a shot as Quigley reconnects and
keeps Aari in front. The constant movement and readiness keeps the
initial advantage open.
Her continued flashes of synergy with Rhyne Howard should have
Dream fans excited about the future of the organization.
The way she collapses the paint and constantly scans the floor
meshed with Howard's fluid off-ball movement and shooting prowess
(she's already one of the best shooters in the league as a rookie)
is so tantalizing when contemplating how this team is
Howard has the makings of an elite shot creator, but she has
limitations as a an initial bender of the defense. She doesn't have
the blend of handle and burst to break down defenses and set it
into rotation consistently yet. Pairing with McDonald, who can
toggle on and off the ball, push the pace and relocate, is about as
ideal a running mate as you can imagine for Howard.
Atlanta has most utilized Howard out of screens and flowing off
the ball into on-the-ball actions (similarly to Sabrina Ionescu in
June), and McDonald is perhaps the best guard on the team in
terms of creating the paint touches to draw the defense the
As Howard continues to work toward high levels of shot creation,
surrounding her with secondary shot creators is paramount. One of
the best ways to open up a creator is to force the defense to deal
The Dream have a much brighter future compared to what it may
have seemed last season. Organizational overhaul deserves due
credit, as does Howard's immediate emergence as a star. But be sure
to keep note of Aari McDonald's play and improvements, as she's
played a significant part in Atlanta's 2022 stability while also
providing more reason for optimism of the team's future.