Kristi Toliver: A Reevaluation of the WNBA Point Guard

By Mirin Fader - @mirinfader

Kristi Toliver leaves practice wearing a yellow Lakers snapback hat with a purple brim, and a “basketball never stops” Nike tee that was popularized by NBA players during last fall’s lockout.

Three hours earlier, in a gym with ten other Sparks players wearing mostly black or navy sneakers, Toliver was the only one to wear Kevin Durant’s highly touted “Aunt Pearl” neon pink Nikes for practice.

Her three-point jump shot is as in-your-face bright as her shoes, though her laidback persona is as calm as her expression after making game winning buzzer-beaters: confident yet understated— she’s done this before.

As much as Toliver stands out, she has spent the past couple years in the league trying to find a team she can fit in, an uncommon journey for a top five draft pick.

After leading Maryland to a national championship, averaging 18 points and 5 assists by her senior year, Toliver emerged as one of the top point guards in the 2009 draft, selected No. 3 by the Chicago Sky and expected to contribute immediately.

Yet the 5’7’’ guard averaged just 7.6 points off the bench in limited minutes, and was traded to the Sparks in 2010. She spent the next two years in Los Angeles again mostly as a reserve, averaging 10 a game.

Sitting on the bench, Toliver felt even more removed from when as a freshman in 2006 she nailed the three-pointer that carried her team to overtime and an eventual 78-75 win in the National Championship game against Duke, Maryland’s first title in the program’s history.

The noise, the celebrations, the streamers—all of it was like a distant dream. Toliver wondered how she got so far away from who she was in college and who she had hoped to be as a pro.

Patience was difficult for a player like Toliver, who is used to zooming down the court in five seconds before you can say go, her bushy ponytail wagging up and down the court behind her.

With her momentum halted for the first time, Toliver had to sit rather than run, learn rather than lead.

“I definitely had to learn to stay patient,” she said. “But I wouldn’t change anything, and it taught me that I have to stay persistent and humble at all times.”

This summer marks her fourth WNBA season. In May some were ready to attach the “it just didn’t pan out” story to characterize her professional career. Yet what her critics didn’t know was that Toliver was still in the gym at midnight, shooting countless threes, waiting for her break.

When expected starting point guard Sharnee’ Zoll went down with a season-ending injury, a space opened up for Toliver.

Down by 21 in the second half at Seattle in the season opener, Sparks Head Coach Carol Ross called Toliver into the game. She scored 25 points to lead her team to a comeback 72-66 win.

Since then she’s averaged a breakout 18.7 points (4th in the league) and 5 assists per game, and Coach Ross now has a difficult time taking Toliver out of the game.

“Things have finally come together for me,” Toliver said. “It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. I’m happy that I’m finally able to be the player I was hoping to be, but I’m first and foremost focused on bringing a championship to L.A.”

As of Wednesday, Sept. 5, The Sparks are 19-9, second place in the Western Conference. Toliver is third in the league in scoring (18.2 per game), third in total three-pointers made (57), while shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. She has scored 29 points three times this season, and her six threes handed the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx their third loss of the year. From July 5-September 2, Toliver scored 19+ points in 11 straight games.

As a young girl, Toliver dreamed about the clutch situations that make others choke. She would play one-on-one against herself as a continuous shooting drill. If she scored, she’d get one point, but if she missed, the “defender” got two points. She idolized Reggie Miller, the subject of her fourth grade English report. At halftime of Bulls/Pacers games, she would go outside on her court and emulate Miller running along the baseline and catching the ball for the game-winning three as an imaginary buzzer sounded in her head.

“The more that’s on the line the more I get excited,” Toliver said. “I just know that im going to make a play. I spent so many hours and years practicing, that when the moment actually comes, it’s nothing new to me, because in my mind I’ve done it millions of times before.”

Toliver is unique because she represents the changing of the guard in the women’s game. The NBA has long had shooting point guards, while the WNBA has had more traditional, pass first guards. Toliver’s ability to balance the two has impressed Coach Ross.

“Kristi is playing the point better than anyone in the league right now,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s anyone more creative than her on offense at that position. She’s helping the women’s game evolve, making people re-evaluate what they think a point guard is.”

As a cornerstone of the Sparks offense, Toliver provides depth in the backcourt, something the Sparks lacked in previous years. Toliver’s outside shooting also opens up the middle for Candace Parker, alleviating pressure off the double-teamed forward.

“Kristi makes my job so much easier,” Parker said. “She has a tremendous work ethic because she’s a perfectionist, and it shows in the kinds of shots she makes.”

The Sparks recently went on a nine game winning streak, the team’s longest in nearly a decade.

“Kristi is undoubtedly reaping the benefits of all of her hard work this year,” Coach Ross said. “And if she is, we are too.”