All-Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year: Ayden McDonald leaves Hibbing a history-maker
The Augustana-bound point guard recorded more than 2,000 points and 1,000 assists at Hibbing.
HIBBING — The shot looked good.
Hibbing was trailing Hermantown 60-59 in the closing seconds of the Section 7AAA championship game March 18.
Senior Ayden McDonald drove to the basket and elevated in traffic for what would have been a game-winning jump shot. For a split second, the shot appeared to fall and at the last possible moment, the ball rimmed out.
McDonald’s storied career with the Bluejackets was over, with the senior agonizingly close to the state tournament for the second straight year. If the Augustana recruit’s shot had fallen, the Bluejackets would have gone to the state tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1975-76, when three-time NBA champion Kevin McHale still roamed the halls.
Comparing an 18-year-old kid to a Hall of Fame player simply isn’t fair, but McDonald did make some history of his own this season.
The point guard ranks third in Minnesota in career assists with 1,167 and is the first player in Minnesota history to record more than 2,000 points. 1,000 assists, 600 rebounds and 500 steals while shooting better than 80% from the free throw line.
McDonald also ranked second in the state after averaging 28.8 points per game and had an astounding 7.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He is also the News Tribune 2022 All-Area Player of the year for the second straight season.
Despite his previous success — success that includes leading Hibbing to its first state tournament since 1989 — even getting back to the section title game wasn’t a given this year. In fact, it was far from a given.
McDonald was the only starter to return to the Bluejackets this season, but despite the turnover, the team still set some extremely high goals, including repeating as Lake Superior Conference and Section 7AAA champions.
“I thought they were exaggerated, lofty goals, to be honest because we were just such a question mark with the lack of experience, size and athleticism — you name it,” Hibbing coach, and McDonald’s father, Joel McDonald said. “I was honestly concerned about what the reality was going to be when the season came to an end.”
Joel said bringing back the team’s point guard — and one of the most prolific passers in the state — was a big part of the team’s continuity.
The season started well for Hibbing, with the Bluejackets getting off to a 7-1 start that included a 77-68 win at Esko where they trailed by 10 points late in the game.
During Hibbing’s holiday tournament, McDonald sprained his ankle during a loss to Columbia Heights and needed nearly a month off, but he thought it could be a positive for the team.
“I felt like it was going to give the guys the ability to kind of play and grow without me, which I think was going to benefit us in the long run,” McDonald said.
The next week, however, several Bluejackets players tested positive for COVID-19, requiring a three-week break in the middle of the season. When they returned to action Jan. 25, Hibbing suffered a blowout loss to Superior and again to Orono four days later.
“It was like we were restarting the season,” McDonald said. “Obviously, it took us a while to get our legs back and our cohesiveness back. After that we went on a pretty decent run to the end of the season, but that three-week break was like nothing I’ve ever been a part of.”
After the two losses, the team won seven of eight games and was just an inch or two away from returning to the state tournament.
“Being one play away from going to the state tournament again, it might be easy to get hung up on it all being disappointing,” Joel said. “But I think there’s a lot to celebrate there just simply because of what we were coming from and what we were able to do. I think that was probably the definitive aspect of what Ayden was to us and was to his team.”
McDonald had to take on more of a scoring load this season, but it didn’t mean a dip in his assists. He still averaged 8.8 assists per game, good enough for fourth in Minnesota. Nor did it mean he wasn’t a strong defensive player. McDonald led the state in steals, averaging nearly 5.6 per game.
While there are any number of players or coaches McDonald might look to for inspiration — including his dad, or grandfather Bob McDonald, the winningest coach in Minnesota history — it was his sister, Abbey McDonald, who was his “idol.”
Ayden and Abbey, Hibbing’s all-time leading girls scorer and the 2019 News Tribune All-Area Girls Basketball Player of the Year, spent countless hours working on their game at the gym with their dad.
“I remember when my dad used to bring us and he would rebound for both of us,” Abbey said. “When we tried to change from a push shot into a jump shot, it was a little frustrating on my part, because Ayden was really good at the change. But those days at the gym with my dad and brother — we would go at each other and then play one-on-one. Pretty soon, he was too big for me to compete against, but it’s been really cool watching him play, let alone play for my dad too.”
Joel said he never “dragged” Ayden or Abbey to the gym, but when a young Ayden saw his dad and sister going, he wanted to go too. Joel said he rebounded ”hundreds of thousands” of shots for his kids over the years, but the one thing he liked to do less than any other.
“I hated reffing games between them,” Joel said. “I’d give that job up for anything because they went at each other. It wasn’t something I wanted them to do a whole lot. We spent a lot more time working on skills of the game and even the thinking part of the game.”
Abbey said her brother’s maturity has been one of his best attributes, on the court, but in life too. McDonald has faced some sort of adversity at almost every turn, from his dad’s bladder cancer diagnosis in 2019 to the COVID-19 pandemic, which took the life of his grandfather in 2020.
“I think he matured faster than I’ve ever seen someone mature,” Abbey said. “I remember at the gym when he would get super frustrated and end our workout early and not handle the game really well mentally. He is, obviously, very mature now — probably well past his age. I think that has been his most apparent asset in live overall and then on the basketball court he is a way better passer than any McDonald ever.”
A podcast, a career and a plan to play overseas
Over the past year, McDonald and friends Harrison Law and Kalin Menara have developed a video podcast in cooperation with Hibbing Public Access Television called “Anchor Down.”
Law and Menara were managers for the Bluejacket basketball team and they asked McDonald to join them on the show.
“They told me they were going to do it and with us being friends, that was something I was interested in too,” McDonald said. “We talk about school a little bit, but mostly we talk about sports, whether that’s high school sports, college sports or professional sports, we get some leeway … We get some leeway, but it’s mostly about sports and we get to be ourselves, so it’s pretty fun.”
Law also noted McDonald’s maturity and the professionalism he’s brought to the show.
“He’s always been the kid that can talk through anything and he’s gone through some stuff where he’s been super mature,” Law said. “He brings the professional aspect to the podcast and he’s willing to be there between us, me and Kalin, and keep us together and really keep us on track.”
Like his father, grandfather as well several uncles and cousins, McDonald hopes to one day be a basketball coach, though he’d like to coach in college. He enjoys doing the podcast, but also believes it will help develop his communication skills, something that will be important in his career.
First, however, McDonald has some other business to attend to. This fall, he will be attending Augustana to play basketball for the Vikings and in addition to his schoolwork and the podcast, McDonald has been preparing for playing at the next level.
“He’s been working hard since the day they lost to Hermantown and I think he will be more than ready,” Abbey said.
McDonald is also working to obtain dual citizenship between the U.S. and Croatia, a place where the McDonalds have family. McDonald has visited several times and his grandfather went to Croatia 21 times, the last time in 2015.
The hope is citizenship will make it easier to play professional basketball in Croatia.
‘A strong relationship’
As he closes his high school career, McDonald is working with his dad to improve his shooting consistency as well as getting into the weight room to improve his strength and quickness.
The gym is a special place for him and Joel, a place where he learned to work and strive for excellence, but never a place he was forced to go.
“He didn’t want to create that work ethic for us where he was dragging us to the gym and a lot of credit to him — whenever we asked him, he always wanted to go, he loves being there,” McDonald said. “In my mind that might not be enjoyable rebounding for us for hours and hours, but that’s just who he is, wanting to rebound for us, wanting us to get better. Spending those hours and hours in the gym with him the last couple years definitely created a strong relationship with us.”
News Tribune boys basketball players of the year
Year Player School
2022 Ayden McDonald Hibbing
2021 Ayden McDonald Hibbing
2020 John Sutherland Grand Rapids
2019 Cade Goggleye North Woods
2018 Quinn Fischer Esko
2017 Jake Skelly Grand Rapids
2016 Brandon Myer Superior
2015 Bjorn Broman Lakeview Christian
2014 Kory Deadrick Esko
2013 Anders Broman Lakeview Christian
2012 Anders Broman Lakeview Christian
2011 Johnny Woodard Duluth East
2010 Dyami Starks Duluth East
2009 Steve Tecker Northwestern
2008 Jay Cary Hibbing
2007 D.J. Winfield Mountain Iron-Buhl
2006 Cory Johnson Duluth East
2005 Cory Johnson Duluth East
2004 Matt Lien Duluth Denfeld
2003 Eric Webb Grand Rapids
2002 Eric Webb Grand Rapids
2001 Rick Rickert Duluth East
2000 Rick Rickert Duluth East
1999 Rick Rickert Duluth East
1998 Steve Battaglia Cloquet
1997 Dusty Rychart Grand Rapids
1996 Leland Swenson AlBrook
1995 Josh Quigley Duluth East
1994 Ryan Giehler Bigfork
This story was edited at 7:58 p.m. on May 1 to correct Augustana's school nickname. It was originally posted at 12 a.m. on April 30. The News Tribune regrets the error.