After seven seasons that culminated in the 2016 championship with the Los Angeles Sparks, Kristi Toliver is coming home.
The former All-Star guard has signed with the Washington Mystics, as announced Tuesday. Toliver was an unrestricted free agent, and she’ll now play in a city about 10 miles from the University of Maryland, where she won the national championship in 2006. Toliver also grew up a couple of hours from D.C. in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
“Coming home was a huge factor,” Toliver said on a conference call Wednesday. “I’ve had so many great experiences in the DMV area. … It really laid the foundation for me as a player and a person. So to have the opportunity to rejoin the community and help build the team back up, that’s exciting for me.”
Toliver will be impossible to replace for the Sparks, who ended their 14-year championship drought by defeating Minnesota in the Finals this past season. On the other hand, the Mystics’ signing of Toliver comes one week after they traded for 2015 MVP Elena Delle Donne, and Washington’s roster now looks as complete as any in the WNBA.
Surprisingly, Toliver said the Delle Donne trade had zero impact on her decision to join the Mystics. Beyond coming back to the D.C. area, she was intrigued by head coach Mike Thibault’s track record and the idea of taking on a leadership role.
She’s always led by example, but Toliver is excited to step up as a vocal, veteran presence on her new squad. She knew this move to Washington would force her into that responsibility.
“I want to be the leader of this team,” Toliver said. “I just have built up so much experience in the eight years I’ve played, now going into my ninth. I’ve played with so many great players and so many great teachers that I want to pay it forward. I just want to be a teacher of the game, because I’ve had so many great teachers. Ultimately that’s what’s most important at the end of the day. Chasing championships and winning games is great, but I really want to pay it forward with all the things I’ve learned from those great teachers.
“Usually when that happens, the wins and championships follow.”
Although they’ve reached the playoffs in three of the last four years, the Mystics are still waiting on their first Finals appearance. Plus, they are coming off a season in which their two leading scorers were age 25 or younger.
As Thibault pointed out, Toliver’s experience and leadership could prove to be crucial.
“We have some players that, by nature, are a little bit quiet,” Thibault said. “And I think Kristi would agree that she was like that a little bit when she was younger. But as you get older, you figure out the kinds of things that need to be said in the locker room. And sometimes they’re not always popular things to be said, but occasional face-to-face discussions have to be had. And I think she’s been through it enough to know what that’s like and how it helps the team.”
One of those young players with a reserved personality is rising star Emma Meesseman, who has already established a relationship with Toliver from playing together overseas. With Meesseman and Delle Donne, Washington now has two of the best three-point shooters among frontcourt players in the league.
Add in Toliver – who was right behind them at 42.4 percent from deep last year – and the Mystics will be awfully hard to defend.
“We’re trying to build something special here, and she’s a huge part of what we’re trying to do,” Thibault said. “Not only with her on-court basketball skills as a guard, but with her leadership role that she will take on with this team. I think adding a player of her caliber, on and off the court, does wonders for our organization.”