Hours before the start of the Washington Wizards’ season opener, Kristi Toliver was burning off pregame energy by running up and down the steps at Capital One Arena.
She offered no hint that she would soon become part of franchise history.
“What do I have to be nervous about?” Toliver said with a smile after taking a gulp of water, then working with Wizards guard Kelly Oubre Jr. briefly in pregame shooting drills.
When Toliver took her seat on the back row of the Wizards bench later Thursday night, a few spots from Coach Scott Brooks, it marked a first on several fronts for the Washington Mystics guard with a championship pedigree.
Toliver debuted as the first female coach in the Wizards’ 58 seasons and became the first active WNBA player to serve as an NBA assistant.
She is the fourth female assistant in the NBA, following Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs), Nancy Lieberman (Sacramento Kings) and Jenny Boucek (Dallas Mavericks). Hammon, the first female full-time assistant in the NBA, is the only woman to sit on the front bench following her promotion over the summer.
“I love her. Our staff loves her. Our players feel the same way,” Brooks said of Toliver before Thursday night’s season-opener against the Miami Heat. “She adds value to our program. She’s very talented. She loves the game. She’s passionate, and she wants to learn. She has this incredible desire to get better, and you know why she’s one of the best players in women’s basketball because of that work ethic.”
Toliver’s responsibilities with the Wizards include player development, an area where Brooks indicated she’s well ahead of schedule. Brooks said he already has delegated multiple assignments to Toliver, and she’s handled them with the care and professionalism of a coach with far more experience.
She’s also one of the top three-point shooters in the WNBA, able perhaps to provide pointers as part of a retooled Wizards’ offense poised to attempt more shots from beyond the arc.
“I’ve given her things to do just to see where she is, and every one of them, she nails it,” Brooks said. “It’s because she’s prepared. She definitely has an incredible future. I just told her to play as long as you can. This thing, what I’m doing here, it stinks. It’s way better being a player.”
Among those attending the Wizards opener included Mystics Coach Mike Thibault. Also the general manager, Thibault is responsible for bringing Toliver to the District via free agency, joining 2015 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne in transforming the team into a championship contender.
Toliver helped direct the Mystics to their first WNBA Finals appearance this year. She also won a WNBA championship with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016 before signing with her de facto hometown team.
The two-time all-star played high school basketball in Harrisonburg, Va., roughly 130 miles from the nation’s capital, before playing her college ball at Maryland.
“There’s that saying, ‘Game respects game,’ ” Thibault said, then referencing the Wizards’ backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. “John and Brad and those other players know she has won at the highest level in the women’s game. She’s got a championship. She’s been to the Finals with us, and a champion in Europe.
“She’s done it with some eye-popping games, and so I think there’s a respect that they have for her as a player, and they know that she’s gone through all the same steps that they’ve gone through growing up.”
Joining Toliver on the Wizards bench were assistants David Adkins and Ryan Richman, completing a trio with connections to the Maryland women’s basketball program and Coach Brenda Frese.
Toliver, then a freshman, made a three-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation in the 2006 national championship game on the way to the Terrapins’ 78-75 overtime win against rival Duke, delivering Maryland its first NCAA women’s basketball title.
The daughter of former NBA referee George Toliver graduated as Maryland’s career leader in three-pointers (300) and has her name and jersey number hanging from the rafters at Xfinity Center.
Adkins was an assistant to Frese for five seasons until moving to the Wizards, for whom he serves as director of player development. Richman, entering his fifth season in Washington, was a practice player with the Maryland women and later became a graduate assistant for Coach Mark Turgeon.
“Awesome, and it couldn’t be in a better place than in our backyard,” Frese said. “It’s somewhat of a pipeline we’ve had there. It’s a dream come true for her. It’s a natural, seamless transition I think for her when you talk about growing up with the game with her dad in the NBA and just her mind as a point guard.
“I think she’ll be able to bring some really valuable things.”
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