LOS ANGELES — It’ll be the Dallas assistant coach vs. Dallas on Sunday.
Only in Kristi Toliver’s world.
The Sparks’ veteran guard is the only active WNBA player working as an NBA assistant.
She just finished her third season on an NBA bench, and her first with the Dallas Mavericks, helping head coach Jason Kidd steer the team all the way to the Western Conference finals, where they lost in five games to Golden State on May 26.
Meanwhile, it’s been an uphill slog for the Sparks, who are 5-8 entering play on the road against the Dallas Wings on Sunday, when Toliver is expected to make her debut in her 13th WNBA season.
Returning to action feels natural, the three-time All-Star and two-time WNBA champion said: “I’ve been a player for a really long time. This is the familiar.”
But there’s still some real ground to make up.
In his capacity as the team’s general manager, Derek Fisher overhauled the Sparks’ roster this offseason, leaving only Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike and Brittney Sykes on board to welcome back Toliver, who averaged 9.4 points and 2.8 assists last season in her first summer with the Sparks since her previous stint with the team between 2010-16.
“A lot of new faces, a lot of people to kind of get used to,” Toliver acknowledged. “But I’m feeling very comfortable.”
There’s a new guy in charge, too. And he, too, seems at ease in his new role.
Forty-year coaching veteran Fred Williams was promoted to be the Sparks’ interim head coach last week after the team announced it was parting ways with Fisher. Toliver had just caught back up with the Sparks, joining her teammates – old and new – on the bench during a loss in Phoenix that proved to be Fisher’s final game with the team.
“It was a little shock to the system at first,” Toliver said of the coaching change, speaking after the Sparks practiced at USC’s Galen Center on Tuesday, part of a week without games, which creates a prime preparation opportunity for both Toliver and Williams.
“And then it’s like anything,” Toliver added. “I think women’s basketball players are the most resilient, (because) we’re just ready for the next thing, next challenge … you gotta keep it moving, there’s still a job to be done and I just gotta get used to my teammates and our coaches that we have here and rock and roll.”
That’s the goal, mentally and physically: While she was working with and studying Mavs ball-handlers Luka Doncic and Jalen Brunson, Toliver also stuck to a strict diet, weightlifting and workout regimen, including partaking in two-a-day training sessions with God Shammgod, one of the Mavericks’ player development coaches.
Still, nothing prepares a player for basketball like playing basketball.
“Obviously, body-wise, it’ll take a minute before I’m physically able to do all the things,” the 35-year-old Toliver said. “That’s why I gotta use this melon up here, that’ll help me.”
Williams said he expects Toliver’s savvy will be immediately beneficial – though possibly in spurts off the bench, at least in the early going.
“I’m looking to implement her (into the starting five),” Williams said. “I don’t know if it’s gonna happen right away or not. I gotta give a couple more practices in there to see where she’s at. But we definitely gotta have her right at the jump in a lot of games, either be in that first five and the first one off the bench.”
Whenever she joins L.A.’s starting lineup again, Toliver said she feels fortunate to have started down a road never before traveled, enjoying distinct opportunities in the NBA and WNBA in the same year – if not the same time, limited as even she is by physics and the fact she can’t be in two places at once.
“It’s a privilege,” said Toliver, who previously did double-duty as a member of the Washington Mystics and Wizards’ coaching staff. “I don’t take it for granted, the opportunity that I’ve had in the NBA and obviously playing in the W, it’s very unique. It’s the first, but I know I’m the right person for that job and that situation, so I’m very thankful.”
“Pressure is a privilege.” – @KristiToliver
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) February 25, 2022
— Los Angeles Sparks (@LASparks) June 10, 2022