Kristi Toliver is the definition of a trailblazer.
The 11-year WNBA veteran is currently finishing up her second season as a NBA assistant coach with the Washington Wizards.
“At the end of day, that’s what your point guard is. It’s a coach on the floor,” shared Kristi Toliver, when Winsidr asked the 3-time WNBA All-Star how her coaching experience will manifest on the court for the Los Angeles Sparks.
“Obviously, we have a great point guard in Chelsea Gray and I’ll just bring another bit of knowledge and experience, certainly being around the NBA on the sidelines, I’ve been exposed to a lot,” Toliver continued.
So there’s all kinds of vantage points that I’ve had and different experiences that I can bring to help because that’s ultimately my job, my job is to help us in any way we can win a championship.”
In her previous seven seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks between 2010-2016, Toliver’s ultimate contribution was helping lead the Sparks to the WNBA Championship in 2016.
The two-time WNBA Champion is returning to the LA Sparks after signing a three-year contract, after playing the last three seasons with the Washington Mystics.
KRISTI TOLIVER IS A PLAYER AND A COACH
On Feb. 26 2017, Toliver signed with the Mystics and during her time in Washington D.C. began working as a full-time NBA Assistant Coach with the Washington Wizards in 2018.
Toliver’s move into coaching was full of synergy, as the Mystics and Wizards are both owned by billionaire Ted Leonsis under the Monumental Sports & Entertainment umbrella.
“I’m extremely thankful for the position that I’ve been in as a player and as a coach and I will certainly share whatever I can and help whoever I can with the coaching staff and with my teammates,” Toliver said. “I’m just there to serve.”
In 2019, the 5’7 guard from the University of Maryland, helped lead the Mystics’ franchise to their first ever WNBA title.
Toliver, 33, will instantly fill a leadership role vacated by the recently retired Alana Beard who was the de facto player/coach on the Sparks roster in 2019.
Although mentorship is a passion for Beard, coaching was not on her radar. Instead, Beard opted for Silicon Valley by way of investing and venture capitalism.
However, Toliver is a coach at heart, personally and professionally. That type of leadership bodes well for the Sparks as they can benefit from having an additional voice to bridge the gap between the coaching staff and players.
CHECKING IN WITH CANDACE AND NNEKA
“I wanted to make sure I spoke with Candace and Nneka specifically during this process because those are two core pieces from the past and obviously with the history that we’ve shared I thought it was important to communicate with those guys as teammates and friends,” Toliver revealed.
We’re on the same page and had the same vision for what could possibly be moving forward, having another shot to win a championship together.”
Being familiar with core players like Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray will go a long way for Toliver’s quick reintegration into the Sparks starting lineup.
Toliver’s goal with the LA Sparks is simple.
“Same page, same vision… having another shot to win a championship together,” Toliver said.
However, what Toliver brings is something that every basketball team, especially the Sparks can never have enough of, 3-point shooting and ball handling.
Those attributes will take defensive pressure off All-WNBA First Team Point Guard Chelsea Gray, allowing Gray more freedom on offense.
Although she’s listed at only 5’7, 130 pounds, Toliver has the ability to play point guard and shooting guard, adding versatility to the Sparks deep and talented roster.
Toliver is a three-time All-Star in 2013, 2018 and 2019, averaging 12.4 points and 3.4 assists, while shooting an above league average 38.7% on 3-pointers over her 11-year career.
Interestingly enough, Toliver was actually a better 3-point shooter in LA than she was in D.C.
Toliver shot 42% on 3-pointers in three of her seven seasons with the Sparks.
BONDING WITH DEREK FISHER
Sparks Head Coach Derek Fisher and Kristi Toliver will have an instant connection, as they have both spent time coaching in the NBA.
He’s a smooth talker but he seems like a genuine and authentic dude. Somebody I can see having a great future with,” Toliver said regarding her first impressions of her new coach Derek Fisher, who won five NBA Championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. “Certainly, these next three years and hopefully beyond. He just knows the game of basketball and for me that’s what I love.”
I see a lot of similarities between the two of us, everything was positive, everything was good. I felt really comfortable in the decision coming back to LA,” Toliver said.
However, the NBA and WNBA are different brands of basketball.
Toliver said she is looking forward to getting to know her entire coaching staff.
She’s also looking forward to being a strategic asset and a de facto player/coach by sharing ideas and helping game plan for opponents.
“I love talking basketball, I love learning more about the game. I love sharing things about the game and I think it’s going to be a really good relationship moving forward as far as sharing ideas and game planning.”
THE ULTIMATE GOAL IS ANOTHER WNBA CHAMPIONSHIP
“This was an extremely difficult decision to make because I love the city of D.C., I love Ted Leonsis the owner, I love my teammates deeply and the three years I got to spend there were some of the best times of my life,” said Toliver.
“When free agency came about it was extremely difficult to have to pull the trigger and leave and yes it was partly financial with the new CBA in place, it’s making a lot of coaches and GM’s make tough decisions,” Toliver shared. “At the end of the day, I know how hard I work, I know the hours that I put in at the gym and how I take care of myself and what I offer a team and I just wasn’t offered the money that I deserved.”
In addition to considering re-signing with the Washington Mystics, Toliver said she met and talked to the Phoenix Mercury, Minnesota Lynx, Connecticut Sun and Las Vegas Aces during WNBA Free Agency, before ultimate returning to the Los Angeles Sparks.
“At the end of the day, it was a basketball decision. It has nothing to do with coaching the NBA. That’s completely separate and I’ve always approached it that way. Me playing in the W and coaching the NBA, it’s special and unique but they’re not aligned. It’s not the same job.”
She’s excited for Round 2 with the Sparks.
“I’m really excited to see how we can mold back together, given three years apart, I’m expecting really positive things from it.”
Toliver plans on being a vocal leader.
“One of the main things that needed to improve was communication. That was a really, really big thing and that’s a given, whenever we struggled back in the LA that was due to lack of communication… one of the lessons I learned in D.C. is to over communicate,” Toliver shared.
We’ve vowed with one another, whether it’s easy stuff or hard stuff, we’re just going to talk it out and stay on the same page. I think that’s really, really important when you’re trying to make a championship run.”
However, Toliver believes that with her on-court chemistry with Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray, the Sparks already have a foundation needed to win a WNBA Championship.
“We’re definitely looking forward to the journey and the process.”