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Kristi Toliver takes lessons learned from Wizards job into Mystics' push for WNBA title

Kristi Toliver takes lessons learned from Wizards job into Mystics' push for WNBA title

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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Wizards release statement on the passing of John Wall's mother

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Wizards release statement on the passing of John Wall's mother

The Washington Wizards announced the passing of John Wall's mother, Frances Pulley on Friday. 

Wall's mother had been battling cancer before her passing. She was 58. 

In a statement on Twitter, the Wizards said, "Sending thoughts and love for John Wall and his family after the passing of his mother, Frances Pulley. She will forever be a part of our #DCFamily."

Zach Leonsis, the senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Monumental Sports & Entertainment, also released a statement

"Thinking of @JohnWall and his family right now. Keeping you guys in our prayers. So terribly sorry for your loss and know that she will be remembered forever. #DCFamily

Wall's Kentucky coach, John Calipari also expressed his condolences for his former star: 


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Bradley Beal sees a young John Wall in the Grizzlies rookie sensation Ja Morant

Bradley Beal sees a young John Wall in the Grizzlies rookie sensation Ja Morant

WASHINGTON -- It is not often you see a rookie find initial success in the NBA to the degree Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant has, already with borderline All-Star numbers at the age of 20. And oftentimes, opponents are careful throwing out player comparisons for guys his age, wanting to see more before they anoint anyone.

Morant, though, is a different case and questions from media members at Wizards practice this week as the team gets set to face him for the first time naturally led to parallels to great players. On Thursday, Brooks brought up unprompted how much Morant reminds him of Russell Westbrook, his former player in Oklahoma City.

And on Friday, Bradley Beal invoked a teammate of his when breaking down what makes Morant so good.

"He loves to get up and down. He's really fast with the ball. It reminds you of John [Wall] in a lot of ways. He plays with his pace," Beal said.

Through 19 games this season, Morant is averaging 18.7 points, 6.4 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He is shooting 42.2 percent from three on 2.2 attempts.

The threes have been surprising to most, as he shot a relatively modest 36.3 percent his final year in college at Murray State. But also surprising maybe just how lethal he has been at attacking the rim.

Sure, that was a big part of his game in college. But this is the NBA where athletes are much bigger and stronger. And he isn't the biggest guy either, weighing in at 175 pounds according to Basketball-Reference.

But despite lacking in size, he has shown an ability to finish through contact rarely seen from any player.

"I think he has a no-fear type of mentality. So, you have to respect his aggressiveness," Beal said. "He'll get respect from a lot of players in the league, a lot of refs in the league because of his aggressiveness and... with all the posters he has. So, he's an assassin. You gotta respect his game."

Beal likely won't draw the defensive assignment on Morant. That will probably go to Ish Smith and back-up point guard Chris Chiozza, who is with the team while Isaiah Thomas recovers from a left calf injury.

Beal knows it is going to be tough for the whole Wizards team to contain Morant. He said the trick will be trying to stay in front of him, though he knows that is easier said than done.

Really, Morant is such a unique player that the Wizards can only gameplan and prepare so much until they actually experience facing him for the first time.

"He's gonna be a handful," Beal said.