Kristi Toliver took advantage of perks with one job to improve herself at another gig.
Her bosses are cool with the arrangement.
Everyone familiar with the Mystics and Wizards is surely aware the two-time WNBA All-Star spent the past NBA season on the Wizards’ payroll as a member of the coaching staff. Toliver primarily served on the player development side, helping put Bradley Beal and others through their practice and pre-game paces.
What outsiders didn’t see is what followed.
After the Wizards' players exited the court, Toliver went from a rookie assistant coach to player preparing for an 11th WNBA season and a legitimate chance at a league championship. She fired up one shot after another, attacked the basket off the dribble, snuck in footwork drills and worked on her conditioning.
This training wasn’t done in isolation. The same developmental coaches Toliver works with turned the tables on the Mystics’ second-leading scorer.
“[Director of Player Development David Adkins] was like, ‘She’s an All-Star. She was in the Finals. Don’t go easy on her,’” Toliver said Monday at Mystics media day. “He was just beating the crap out of me, being really physical. I had to get used to that. I had to get comfortable to banging and hitting.”
The Mystics’ starting shooting guard also had floor seats to study Beal, her positional counterpart.
“I got to see how guys played against Brad and physical they were, holding him and (see) ways to get out of it,” Toliver said. “For me, as much as I was coaching, I was also observing and watching a lot for myself.”
With the Mystics opening training camp this week at their new home in the Ward 8 part of Washington, now is the time for all that practice and picturing to payoff.
“I think it helped a lot. I feel really good and really confident right now,” said Toliver, who skipped playing overseas during this WNBA off-season.
“I was able to really focus on myself and ways that I wanted to get better individually," she said. "That’s what I did for an 82-game season. I worked every day with high-level NBA player development staff which not a lot of people get that.”
The tangible physical effects won’t show until the Mystics hit the court under the direction of coach/general manager Mike Thibault. Toliver’s basketball brain already revealed growth.
“I didn’t think Kristi’s IQ could get much better – and it did,” Mystics leading scorer Elena Delle Donne said.
The Mystics reached the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history last year but lost the best-of-5 championship series to the Seattle Storm 3-0. Washington enters 2019 the betting favorite to win it all.
No doubt, Toliver sought every edge possible to help prove the Vegas odds-makers smart. Delle Donne said her fellow 2018 All-Star already began showing video clips of NBA plays that might benefit the Mystics.
That teaching mindset came before the Wizards job.
“[Kristi] is able to explain the game in different ways. She’s always been a Coach to me,” Mystics second-year guard Ariel Atkins told NBC Sports Washington. “She’ll break an entire play down player by player, explain to us where the gap is, where the point of attack is.”
Opponents will receive a different look from the Mystics with the return of Emma Meesseman. The 2015 All-Star remained with the Belgium national team last season.
Meesseman’s absence allowed Thibault to play Delle Donne at her natural power forward position. Delle Donne finished among the league leaders in scoring (20.7) while shooting 40.5 percent on 3-pointers.
So, Coach Toliver, what’s the best way to deploy these talents while maximizing the team’s chances of returning to the championship round?
“You went to the Finals. You don’t change a beat,” Toliver said.
Thibault told NBC Sports Washington he plans on bringing Meesseman off the bench. The player who is also a coach agrees.
“[Injuries] could change that but if it’s me, you keep your same starting five and you have a hell of a player (off the bench),” Toliver said.
She tossed in a position wrinkle. Rather than play one of the forward’s at the 3 as Delle Donne did in 2017, Toliver said, “You play [them] at the 4/5. This is a pretty position-less league and they’ll learn to play with one another.”
Beyond the Wizards and Mystics, Toliver kept tabs on WNBA matters, like the league searching for a new commissioner and discussing certain concerns. Among them, Toliver was only allowed to receive $10,000 in salary because of language in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that prevented the Wizards from paying more since Ted Leonsis owns both franchises.
“There are certain things with the CBA we need to fix like me not getting paid in the NBA situation,” Toliver said.
If there’s anyone capable of finding a solution, it’s the player grinding at two jobs.
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