May 20, 2023 

In her Mystics return, Kristi Toliver makes familiar impact in new role

Eric Thibault: ‘That's the Kristi Toliver we need’

WASHINGTON — Veteran Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver moves at her own pace, languid but deliberate.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

When Toliver returned to the Mystics’ facility for the first time after re-signing with the team this spring, head coach Eric Thibault saw her as she crossed the practice court to enter the locker room.

“It’s funny because Kristi don’t walk through the gym fast,” he told The Next during training camp, “so I got to watch her walk from one side to the other, nice and slow.”

Guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who played with Toliver during the latter’s first stint in Washington from 2017-19, said that in practice, she’ll sometimes joke with Toliver, “You don’t want to go a little bit faster?”

“Then she goes out there and she does that,” Walker-Kimbrough told The Next after the Mystics’ season-opening win over the New York Liberty, 80-64, on Friday. “So from now on, I’m just gonna mind my business.”

In her first home game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in nearly four full years, Toliver recorded 10 points, one rebound, one assist and one steal with zero turnovers in just 12:24. She shot 4-for-7 from the field, including 2-for-4 from 3-point range, to help the Mystics handily beat a Liberty team that is projected to finish in the top two in the league.

Toliver is slated to fill an important role for the Mystics off the bench this season, playing both point and shooting guard and being a literal coach on the floor with her three years of experience as an NBA assistant. The Mystics had managed her workload in training camp given that she hadn’t played in the offseason, but she showed on Friday that, at age 36, her body and mind are ready for the rigors of another season.

The Next, a 24/7/365 women’s basketball newsroom

The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff and dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.

Toliver wasn’t always sure, though, that she would play another year in the WNBA — or where that would be. After spending her rookie season with the Chicago Sky, she played nine seasons, including the last two, for the Los Angeles Sparks and was in Washington for three. While coaching with the Dallas Mavericks this winter, she wondered whether she could balance her NBA responsibilities with preparing to play again — and if she even wanted to.

Then she met with former Mystics head coach and current general manager Mike Thibault in Los Angeles. She started to think seriously about returning to Washington, where she and six of her current teammates had won a championship in 2019.

“It was definitely a difficult decision,” she told The Next after Friday’s game. “… A lot of things weighed into all that, but once I did make the decision, I was all in. … This was obviously the right move.”

Once Toliver decided, the reunion instantly felt right to everyone — her teammates, her coaches, herself. At the Mystics’ media day on May 1, Toliver told reporters that she felt “at peace.” Her teammates gush about her shooting, her coaching ability and her mentorship. And they have different and joyous stories about when they first saw her in the Mystics’ facilities this season.

Eric Thibault watched Toliver make the familiar walk to the locker room. Two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, who came to Washington with Toliver in 2017, saw Toliver’s things in her locker — located next to Delle Donne’s, like old times — and went searching for her.

“I was like, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’ immediately,” Delle Donne told reporters on media day. “She was in the training room. Gave her a huge hug. … I knew she’d be there, [but] I don’t know, just having her face there, though, and having her presence is huge.”

Forward Myisha Hines-Allen, who played with Toliver in 2018 and 2019, found Toliver in the weight room. “I almost dropped to my knees and cried,” Hines-Allen told The Next. But instead, she ran up to Toliver from behind and engulfed her in a hug.

“Who is this?” Toliver asked. “Myisha?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” Hines-Allen said. “I’m here.”

Part of what Toliver brings on the court is a calmness that helps settle her teammates. But before the season opener, she was nervous. So she spoke with the Mystics’ mental performance coach, Stu Singer, who suggested some exercises to do to center herself. She then spent almost an hour pregame meditating and “silencing the noise of everything, of all the emotions,” she said. (Fittingly, she also wore a shirt to the arena that read, “Golf is dope,” referencing a sport that she says is good for her mental health.) By the time she emerged for warmups, she looked like her usual calm, deliberate self.

The arena felt just like she’d remembered it, she said, with a sold-out crowd and lots of anticipation for the Mystics’ season. She briefly addressed the fans pregame, telling them, “We are in the pursuit of greatness, we’re in pursuit of another [championship] banner, and we’re going to need your help.” She received raucous cheers for that speech and again moments later, when each player was introduced and ran out of the tunnel amid flashing lights and cannons of smoke.

Toliver checked into the game for the first time with 3:30 left in the first quarter, replacing shooting guard Ariel Atkins. She missed two long jump shots off the dribble late in the quarter but seemed to find her footing by the second quarter.

Less than a minute into that quarter, Toliver hit a 3-pointer to extend the Mystics’ lead to eight points. Two possessions later, Toliver drew a defender in transition and found forward Tianna Hawkins for a layup, forcing a New York timeout. As she came to the huddle, Toliver got a celebratory bump from point guard Natasha Cloud.

“I was glad that … she kept firing” after missing her first two shots, Thibault said postgame. “I think that’s the Kristi Toliver we need. The green light is on.”

However, Toliver did pass up one shot, which was something that Mike Thibault used to chastise her for. In a timeout, Toliver looked over at Thibault, who was sitting at center court with his wife Nanci, and held up one finger. “All right, I had my one,” she said she was telling him. “I won’t do it again.”

Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver shoots a layup in transition as New York Liberty center Jonquel Jones races back to try to contest it.
Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver shoots a layup in transition against the New York Liberty at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Toliver scored seven more points in the second half on a layup, a fadeaway jumper and a 3-pointer from the same spot as her earlier one. Equally importantly, she steadied her team as the Liberty made a run. In a third-quarter timeout, Toliver took command of the huddle while Eric Thibault spoke with his assistants. Toliver spun her hands in a circle and pointed to spots on the court, telling her teammates that they needed to ball-fake more and counter New York’s aggression with their own.

“You see her talk and we’re all locked in,” said Walker-Kimbrough, who at times in training camp brought Toliver a whiteboard and asked her to draw plays and walk through various scenarios. “We’re all dialed into what she says because, I mean, her voice is powerful. Her knowledge, her IQ is powerful. And what she says, it works, so you lock in on things like that.”

“I’ve been glad she’s been willing to be vocal,” Eric Thibault told The Next in training camp. “Sometimes before, Kristi would speak when she got to a breaking point, when she got to a point of frustration, and now she’s very just proactively helping talk our [players] through different situations.”

The Next and The Equalizer are teaming up

The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribe to The Next now and receive 50% off your subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

Player after player has told reporters this season that Toliver has a unique way of communicating, even if she’s saying the same thing as the coaching staff. It’s partly that she can execute any skill she’s talking about, Atkins said. It’s also that she is “in the same shoes as I am” as a current player, center Amanda Zahui B. said. And maybe, too, it’s Toliver’s delivery.

“There was one moment we were working out and I was finishing with the wrong hand, and she comes up to me,” guard Brittney Sykes told reporters on Thursday. “She’s like, ‘Finish it with your left, fool.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ … If you know KT, that’s how she talks to you.”

“[If] she sees something, she says it,” Walker-Kimbrough added. “She says it and then walks away.”

Toliver’s insights have even helped the coaching staff, multiple Mystics coaches told The Next. That’s why Delle Donne refers to Toliver as “our cheat code.” Beyond the fact that Toliver has coached at the highest level and sees plays and holes before any other player, knowing those things about Toliver gives her teammates a jolt of confidence.

“The decision-making that she does and who she is as a player, it’s contagious with everybody else,” assistant coach Shelley Patterson told The Next during training camp. “They feed off of her.”

Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver grins as she gets ready to high-five her teammates.
Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver (20) high-fives teammates Amanda Zahui B. (42) and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (32) during a game against the New York Liberty at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

After the final seconds ticked off the clock on Friday, Toliver body-bumped Hines-Allen in celebration, then draped an arm over Atkins’ shoulder as the players huddled at center court. In the locker room, she helped douse Eric Thibault in water to mark his first win as the Mystics’ permanent head coach. Then she downshifted, changing back into her golf-themed shirt and preparing to go home.

A few rooms away, though, Delle Donne and Cloud continued the celebration as they spoke with reporters. When Toliver’s name came up, they jumped in to talk about her before the full question was even asked.

“Man, that’s my girl. That’s my girl. I love me some Panda,” Delle Donne said, using Toliver’s longtime nickname. “I’m so happy for her. She’s just such a good player. She’s a coach. She does so much for us [in] the coaching aspect … and then Panda’s just a gamer. … You just know she’s gonna come in and do her thing and go off.”

“It’s good to see her home, too,” Cloud chimed in, “where she’s supposed to be, where she belongs.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.