One-on-one with men’s basketball star Aaryn Rai ’21
Over his three years in Hanover, Aaryn Rai ’21 has become a centerpiece on the floor for the men’s basketball team. Rai broke out during his junior season in 2019, averaging 11.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game while starting all 29 contests and shooting 50.6 percent from the field. His biggest moment of the 2019-20 season came at home versus Columbia University when Rai hit a last-second hook shot to sink the Lions.
Rai’s 2.8 win shares last season made him the ninth-most valuable player in the Ivy League. As a result of this significant uptick in performance, Rai was the recipient of the team’s Rudy LaRusso Award as the most improved player.
Last week, Rai entered the NCAA transfer portal as a potential graduate transfer with the fate of the 2020-21 basketball season in limbo. The Dartmouth sat down with him to discuss his basketball career, as well as his plans for the future.
When did you start playing basketball? When did you start thinking that playing Division I college basketball was a possibility?
AR: I started in high school after I stopped playing soccer. I switched schools to Orangeville Prep, a basketball powerhouse in Canada, before my junior year because I was getting pretty good. They pump out Division I guys over there. So I was around a bunch of good players, and it just made me realize that I could do the same thing and use basketball to get me somewhere.
What made you decide to come to Dartmouth? How was the recruiting process?
AR: I came to a camp that head coach David McLaughlin had down here for a bunch of high school kids. I guess they really liked me, and they kept the relationship going when I left, and they offered me a spot. They just pitched the idea of a really unique college experience. You’re obviously getting a really great degree. And the culture they were building around of just constant improvement and the fact that we haven’t been historically good. Just the ability to come in and make an impact and change the overall team culture and history was obviously a big part.
Also the guys that I knew — I think we have some, probably, the greatest group of 12 to 15. I think that really drew me towards them because of the great team atmosphere that the guys have, and I wanted to be a part of that.
Do you feel like the culture has changed? Do you feel like you’ve accomplished any of those goals over your last three years?
AR: Yeah, I think we’ve definitely seen a shift in the team culture. There’s a lot more guys who are self-driven, which obviously contributes to the team’s success. We’ve had a couple bad breaks due to injuries and stuff for some of our best players, like Brendan Barry ’20 last year and then Chris Knight ’21 this year, which obviously puts a damper on our plans, but I think the overall team culture of just working hard and pushing yourself as well as the team is definitely something that we’ve improved on, and I think you can see the fruits of our labor.
How do you think the pandemic has impacted your career? Do you think you’re going to get to play this year?
AR: It just sucks because you can’t really hang out or work out as a team, and you don’t get to see the guys every day, but I think it just puts things in perspective about what we’re doing and how much else is out there that’s just bigger than college basketball. I think both the pandemic and the social justice movements happening just make you realize how much more there is to life than just basketball, and how you want to make sure that your impact is more than just on the court — and then you can create some tangible change. Obviously, the pandemic is just a horrible thing that’s happened to the world, but if there’s a silver lining, it’s the perspective that it gives you about what you’re doing.
We saw that you are considering transferring as a graduate student. What factors went into the decision to enter the portal to explore that option?
AR: I’m obviously going to play if we have a season this year, but it’s not 100 percent known whether we’ll have a season. If I’m unable to play this season, I would like to come back to play at Dartmouth for another year, but if that unfortunately doesn’t work out for some logistical reason, I would have to consider elsewhere.
I am getting the information and my options available as soon as possible to help make me make the decision. I definitely want to play this year if there is a season, and then hopefully come back if I’m able to do that, but if not and the options are available, I could look elsewhere.
Over the three years you’ve played with the team so far, what have been some of your favorite moments?
AR: My sophomore year we went to Ireland as a team. That was really cool, just being able to go to a different country and play and see all that Ireland had to offer.
Just some of the practices and workouts with the guys — not necessarily one particular moment — but all the time that we’ve spent hanging out and building relationships is probably the best part that has come out of all of this. Even including basketball, just making those relationships is what really this whole game and life’s about.
How do you think your game has improved since you first arrived?
AR: McLaughlin has just been giving me much more confidence and leeway as I’ve improved. I think the coaching staff has been good for me since coming in, and they’ve been able to help me consistently improve on my game. And then the confidence that comes with it has helped a lot. I think they do a really good job at seeing what each player can work on and giving them a vision of the finished product their senior year, and creating different ways that players can go about improving to get to and achieve that finished product.
Do you feel pressure as one of the top scorers and a go-to option?
AR: Not really. I think pressure always comes from thinking about the game before the game begins. Once you start playing it’s about having fun and competing out there and everything else; all of the other thoughts kind of get pushed aside, and you just get caught in the moment.
After, you realize the magnitude of the situation you’re in. You’re just trying to take your next breath and go to the next play. You don’t have time to think through all that.
Are you a guy who wants the ball in clutch spots?
AR: Definitely. That’s the whole fun about playing. Getting the ball, making plays for others and making plays for yourself is a lot more fun, especially in those moments. It’s everybody’s dream to get the ball in those spots and definitely mine.
Do you think the Lakers are going to win the NBA Finals?
AR: Hopefully not. I definitely want the Heat to win. I love the way they play team basketball. Everybody gets involved; they’re a tough team. It would be good to see them win.
What are your plans after graduation?
AR: I’m definitely playing professional basketball after college. Hopefully, that leads me to the NBA. If not, overseas definitely. I might go to medical school after I finish playing professional basketball.
What do you enjoy most about being at Dartmouth?
AR: Definitely the people. I think the people make the place, and I think it’s hard to find another place in the world with such great individuals. The interactions that I have had have made Dartmouth a special place.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.