In the final portion of the Washington Wizards’ practice last Wednesday, a new, 5-foot-7 coach dished set-up passes for players to put up jump shots. That coach came closer than the Wizards did to winning a championship last season — a WNBA championship.
It was Kristi Toliver, the Washington Mystics’ point guard, whom the Wizards added to the staff in a temporary capacity for training camp and the preseason after she spent a day helping the staff at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
“When I met with her in Las Vegas, I told her I’d been following her for two years now (when) she came over with the Mystics,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “I like her IQ. I like to be challenged.”
Toliver is the latest woman to take on a role on a men’s team, unheard of for women just five years ago, following other female coaches on NBA benches like Becky Hammon as well as scouts and assistants in the NFL and NHL.
What sets Toliver apart is that she’s already working on her budding coaching career while still an active player. Toliver averaged 13.9 points and 4.4 assists per game in the WNBA playoffs and the Mystics reached the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, where they were swept in three games.
The finals ended on Sept. 12, and her EuroLeague team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, starts its new season next month. But in the limited time in between, Toliver, 31, is serving in a player development role for the likes of John Wall and Bradley Beal.
Brooks said Toliver “adds value” both to the staff and to his players.
“I like to be around coaches that think the game, and I know I’m a little biased from a point guard standpoint, because point guards, they see the game different,” said Brooks, a former point guard himself. “The game is in front of them.”
The future is female?
Hammon, another point guard by trade, has been an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs since 2014. This summer she became the first woman to interview for an NBA head coaching gig, as a candidate for the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks also employed former WNBA coach Jenny Boucek as an assistant last season; over the summer she joined the Dallas Mavericks in the same capacity.
Nancy Lieberman spent time with the Sacramento Kings as an assistant for the 2015-16 season. More recently, she coached in the BIG3 3-on-3 basketball league and led her club, Power, to win the championship. It prompted rapper and league founder Ice Cube to proclaim, “A female can do anything in sports.”
The NBA, in particular, has grown more receptive to having women on the sidelines. LeBron James, ever an influential voice in the league, said last season that “it’s not about male or female” but whether you know the game that counts. Spurs forward Pau Gasol went a step further and wrote a “Players’ Tribune” essay defending Hammon’s qualifications to coach him and his team.
But it’s not just basketball — women are earning coaching jobs in contact sports as well. The Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter in 2015 as a training camp and preseason coaching intern, somewhat analogous to Toliver’s job. Welter was believed to be the first female NFL coach; the next year, the Buffalo Bills made Kathryn Smith the first woman to hold a full-time coaching job, and at least six more teams have added female interns.
And in hockey, three women have served as teams’ skating coaches or consultants since 2016, when Dawn Braid joined Arizona to become the first in NHL history.
Though this trend is mirrored at the college and high school levels, it is hardly as prevalent. About 3 percent of all men’s sports teams in NCAA Division I were coached by women, a 2017 study found, and even in women’s college basketball, there are now more male head coaches than female. Last year there were five women on high school boys’ basketball coaching staffs in the Washington area, but that sample size is small and likely not representative of the country.
The Wizards declined to make Toliver available for this story, but everyone who has associated with the point guard has spoken highly of one key attribute that would lend itself to coaching.
“She’s a woman that has a great IQ for the game of basketball. She knows how to play,” John Wall said. “You can pick her brain about certain things and you can see in the fundamentals that she knows can win the game.”
“Her intelligence, her basketball IQ and her leadership is so big,” Elena Delle Donne told Washington City Paper last month. “I feel like at any big point of the game, we’re always looking to her for the answers and she has them. She’s going to be a great coach someday. Right now, I’m glad she’s our player-coach.”
For Wall, his relationship with Toliver has been symbiotic.
“She asks me certain questions about what I see when I’m playing and what I see on pick-and-rolls,” he said. “So we just talking to each other, understanding both from point guard perspectives.”
We’re a few years off from knowing if Toliver becomes the next woman to break into a full-time NBA coaching gig, as she is still young enough to play in the WNBA and overseas.
“I told her, keep playing, that’s the best job in the world. This coaching thing, I don’t know about it,” Brooks joked. “But she should play as long as she can because she’s definitely going to be destined for greatness as a coach.”