Photo by Ben Standig for The Sports Capitol
Tolliver takes a shot on Wizards bench
BY BEN STANDIG | JULY 10, 2018
LAS VEGAS — The first ever three-games-in-three-days set involving the NBA and WNBA began with a thank you. The gesture sent Kristi Toliver down a potential new career path.
The Washington Mystics guard expertly performed her day job Saturday in a road win at Los Angeles. She scored 18 points in Sunday’s loss at Seattle and then hopped a red-eye flight to Las Vegas. By Monday afternoon the former University of Maryland star was at the Wizards’ practice ahead of their third Summer League game. Then she sat on the bench with head coach Ryan Richman and the other assistants as Washington defeated Philadelphia 87-75 for its first Summer League win since 2016.
By doing so, Toliver let a secret loose. This appearance was weeks in the making. In her explanation of how this ball started rolling, another previously undisclosed nugget became public.
“One day I was walking into (Mystics) practice and I ran into Ryan. I congratulated him for being named head of the G-League team,” Toliver said from the bowels of Thomas & Mack Arena on the UNLV campus. “He said ‘Great, thanks. Want to be my assistant?’ I was like, sure. It just kind of went from there.”
Except Richman never actually landed with Washington’s new G-League entry, the Capital City Go-Go. Instead, the Wizards promoted him to bench assistant for Wizards head coach Scott Brooks and named him Summer League head coach after Chad Iske joined Charlotte’s coaching staff.
“We kept the dialogue (going),” Toliver continued. “I was able to be involved with the Summer League stuff and all the practices and workouts with the guys. Coming in early for the coaches meetings before I had practice. I’ve been busy, but it’s been such a great experience for me.”
Monday’s view was certainly different for the point guard, who won an NCAA title with Maryland and a WNBA championship with Los Angeles in 2016.
“The game was slower. When you’re sitting on the sideline you see everything,” Toliver said. “I really loved it.”
Toliver hasn’t simply been observing.
“Her presence is great. She brings energy every day. She helps us a lot,” said Wizards forward Devin Robinson.
Robinson backed up his 24-point outing in Sunday’s loss to San Antonio with an efficient 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting. After missing five of his six 3-pointers Sunday, he sank 2-of-4 against the 76ers with Toliver on hand.
“(She) helped me with my shot,” Robinson said of the assistant coach who doubles as one of the WNBA’s best 3-point threats. “She always tells me if I’m leaning back or not. Tells me about my follow-through. She can shoot the ball so I take her word for it.”
First-round pick Troy Brown Jr. led the Wizards (1-2) with 23 points. Center Thomas Bryant added 16 points and 12 rebounds.
The player Toliver most identifies with, point guard Chris Chiozza, delivered his best performance in three games. While the other coaches huddled during timeouts while conjuring up a tactical plan, Toliver stayed with the players to offer “another set of eyes.”
“Chris I just told be in charge, be the floor general,” Toliver said. “You want guys to do certain things, vocalize it. I was trying to tell him to stay out of the sideline, get in the middle of the floor, get your bigs to roll, have a riser so you have options. He did great. Eleven assists, two turnovers, he did a great job.”
The extra gig hasn’t slowed down Toliver from her main gig. The 10-year veteran is averaging 14.5 points and 4.1 assists for the Mystics, who are third in the league standings with a 12-7 record. Toliver’s scoring would represent her highest average since 2013. Her work puts All-Star consideration in play. Reality puts the next phase of her career on her mind.
“People always ask what are you going to do after you play. I’m still 31. I’m still in my primetime of playing, but you always have to think of the next thing,” Toliver said. “Basketball is my love and my passion. I just want to stay connected to the game anyway I can. I think coaching is a way to do that.”
Toliver’s father worked as an NBA referee from 1988-2004. She didn’t mention that route when discussing her first coaching game. Toliver told The Sports Capitol that she wouldn’t be playing overseas following the WNBA season. That’s how many players earn the bulk of their yearly salary. This player is looking beyond the next paycheck. The Wizards are in the midst of putting together the Go-Go’s entire organizational structure. That includes the coaching staff. Toliver seems intrigued about being part of that group.
“Obviously I have a job to do this summer. Still trying to make All-Star, still trying to make our team stay top-3 in the league,” Toliver said. “I’ll be busy, but I still want to stay connected to these guys and see where we can go from here.”
Washington awaits seeding for the Summer League playoffs. Whatever its path, Toliver won’t be around. She’s headed back to the Mystics, though not before several postgame interviews about her coaching debut and a congratulatory hug from Wizards and Mystics owner Ted Leonsis, who attended Monday’s game.
“I’m just kind of getting my feet wet on this side of the line,” Toliver said. “I really enjoy it. I’ve had the idea of wanting to coach pros. Obviously, I’ve never worked with men before. These guys have been great and they really kind of embraced me and supported me through this process. Hopefully this will be one of many games for me.”
Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.