If Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver continues to play as well as she has to start the 2011 WNBA season, her name is likely to come up in both Most Improved Player and Sixth Woman of the Year award discussions.
As one of the league's top pure scorers thus far in this young season, the 5'7" guard's most noticeable improvement has been from long-distance where she currently has a career-high 52.6% 3-point percentage to contribute to her career-high 13.3 points per game through the Sparks' first three games.
Toliver attributes the impressive start in her third season to playing in a more competitive league overseas with Turkish club Samsun as well as taking off the first half of the off-season to get herself some mental and physical rest.
But otherwise, Toliver says not much changed beyond taking advantage of greater opportunity to perform.
"Just trying to have a good season, playing the style of basketball I know how," Toliver said somewhat matter-of-factly in an interview after practice on Friday. "And now, I think moreso this year than any other year, I'm just getting opportunities to be on the floor and I'm really taking advantage of that."
However, taking advantage of opportunities thus far this season hasn't necessarily been about increased minutes - her 19.3 minutes per game this season is actually just under her 20.7 minutes per game from last season. So when it comes to discussing that Most Improved Player award as of right now, at least, Toliver has among the strongest arguments for actually improving rather than simply putting up better numbers in more minutes or a considerably different role.
Regardless of award consideration, the improved play probably comes as no surprise to Kristi's father, George Toliver, who not only has a broader perspective on his daughter's development, but also witnessed her go from the lows of testing the limits of her basketball passion on a lottery team to the increasingly joyful experience of being a contributor on a solid playoff contender among legends.
All Kristi Toliver has ever wanted is an opportunity to play basketball and show off what she could do, even before the WNBA's inception 15 years ago.
"I was very excited when the WNBA was formed because Kristi had said way back when she was a little kid before the WNBA that one of her goals was to play in the NBA," said Kristi's father George in an interview with Swish Appeal on Friday. "So I've been sort of watching the whole evolution."
Yet when Kristi first entered the WNBA, the opportunities to play didn't exactly come easily.
Drafted third overall by the Chicago Sky in 2009 as a point guard after a standout career that included a NCAA national championship at the University of Maryland, Kristi saw somewhat erratic playing time as a rookie and never truly met the expectations that made her a lottery pick. The Sky missed the playoffs again with a 16-18 record and shortly before the 2010 season, Kristi was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks for a 2011 second round draft pick after Chicago spent another lottery pick on scoring guard Epiphanny Prince.
Toliver embraced the change, even if her value had obviously fallen in a year's time as she was squeezed out of the Sky's future.
"The trade was something I was hoping for and looking forward to, so I was glad when that happened," Kristi said in an interview after Friday's practice. "It was a different time - I've never been involved in anything like that. So for me it was a little bit different. But overall, I'm just happy with where I am. My dad definitely told me to stay positive, no matter what's going on and that was huge for me then because there were definitely a lot of lows my rookie year."
Despite the fact that their relationship was altered prior those dark moments in Chicago during the summer of 2009 with her transition to the WNBA, the value of her dad's supportive presence is perhaps best revealed in how both recall that struggle with adversity.
With Kristi embarking upon a professional basketball career, her father-daughter relationship with George, a former FIBA and NBA referee, obviously stood to change. Gone are the days of perfecting her shooting stroke on a Dr. J mini-hoop, tagging along with him to Washington Bullets games or Dream Team II practices, and having him in attendance for all of home games during a stand-out career at the University of Maryland.
With Kristi now living and playing across the country in Los Angeles - not to mention pursuing the more lucrative career overseas - there is far less communication than there was prior to her WNBA career. Their interactions primarily consist of phone calls or texts on game days with George offering words of advice before watching her games on WNBA LiveAccess along with the common WNBA fan.
"I just let her know that I'm connected and a fan and love her," George said. "Every now and then, I'll throw in a little tidbit, depending on who they're playing, about what to watch for in certain matchups and usually something on offense and something on defense, just because of the basketball connection that we have. But it's far less frequent and far less depth in terms of those kinds of things.
"I just want her to know that I support her - I'm just sort of a fan dad supporting her and the team and actually the whole league. I think the league is a great league and I try to promote it."
Still, their basketball bond has always prevailed even in moments when it could presumably be tested due to a conflict of interest.
As the NBA's current Director of Referee Development, in addition to being a former NBA referee, George not only knows most of the people who officiate Kristi's games, but might have even worked with them in their development. Of course just understanding the difficulty of her father's profession George and Kristi agree that she's generally respectful of the refs, even to the point that when she has tested a refs patience, George trusts her instincts instead of chastising her.
"Even when I got a technical last year against Seattle in the playoffs, my dad didn't have anything really to say about it," said Kristi, with a chuckle. "He kind of just said, 'Whatever you did, whatever you said I'm sure it was appropriate for the time and just keep it moving.' Basketball is a very emotional game it gets very heated and sometimes it gets the best of you. So you can't get too down on yourself if you do have a mishap with an official like that, but just try not to do it on a consistent of basis."
The consistent thread running through their lives together is that emphasis on not letting her emotions get the best of her and it was the primary focus of his counsel while she was in Chicago. Even with George staying connecting digitally, the bottom line is that Kristi wasn't playing and, after coming to the WNBA expecting to compete for a championship, her dream of playing professionally had suddenly met a sharp dose of reality.
"I mean she basically was enthusiastic wanting to go to the WNBA and trying to win a championship and suddenly found herself as a spectator and watching games from the bench," George said in recalling Kristi's days in Chicago. "Quite frankly, I think it really was demoralizing - it took a lot of air out of her sails as the season progressed. She was patient in the beginning, but as the season went on and she was not involved, as a competitor it really took the wind out of her sails...It just sort of flat-lined. And my biggest concern just in watching her over the course of time as the season went on was just seeing her emotional love for the game seemingly have the air taken away."
As Kristi alluded to, the trade was the first step in reviving her passion for the game. With Los Angeles, Kristi has found a role doing the thing she's always done well: shooting the ball.
"I think Los Angeles' style of play is certainly complementary," George said. "I think the personnel on Los Angeles' team creates some spacing that I think is good. And I just think a positive state of mind, contributed with those two factors, certainly bodes well for how she plays."
With veteran players around her on a team whose chemistry and synergy has slowly increased since Lisa Leslie's retirement and Jennifer Gillom taking over as coach prior to the 2010 season, Kristi has excelled as a player who can stretch defenses and fill a need that was simply absent from the Sparks' roster - they shot only 29.7% from 3-point range in 2009 and bumped that up to 33.7 last year, which makes this season's 42.3% shooting from long range something of a quantum leap.
As George insisted during those low points with the Sky, her time had finally come.
"I told her that the one thing that I think is very important is that no one can take your passion away unless you give it up," George said. "If you keep your skill-set high, with the skillset that you have, somebody is going to want it. And that really is the message I kept saying. That's what she has to go through everyday: she has to practice hard, she has to be a good teammate. You have to prepare yourself and produce day in and day out just as if everything was going the way you envisioned and hoped for. If you never lose that, with your skill-set, somebody is going to say, 'She's available. We'll take her.'
"And that's just trusting in yourself."
Yet for all of the factors that might be immediately noticeable in her improvement this season - a better fit, experience overseas, positive mindset, and opportunity - George shared additional insight from the moments when they reconnected this spring at his home in South Carolina.
The father and daughter duo went through daily workouts at the local YMCA. Rather than work solely on positional skills with her, George encouraged her to work more on general basketball drills, which might have helped her better define herself as a player this season. But most of all, George has been impressed by a more intangible improvement.
"I don't know if it's something that you would say is noticeable but I'm aware of it," George said as he was making his way across the country to be in Los Angeles for Kristi's game against the Storm on Father's Day. "She has a determination that she just wants opportunity to go out and play. There's a maturity - she's no longer a rookie in the league, she's no longer a rookie on that team in Los Angeles. I just think there's a composure and determination that I see in her this year."
As Kristi's career continues to progress, the father-daughter basketball connection that she shares with her father will undoubtedly go through additional shifts, the specific character of her interactions with George in her life are bound to go through continued changes - no relationship is ever truly static. But no matter what, he will continue to be there for her in ways that help her in the next stage of her development.
"She was a kid that loved and was passionate about basketball and I tried to share my background, my information as a fan, as a playmate, as a friend, as a confidant, as a counselor, and that has not changed - this role has not changed," George said. "It really started as a dad-daughter relationship that happened to have basketball as a common bond."
Today George will have the honor of attending one of Kristi's games again as the Los Angeles Sparks host the WNBA champion Seattle Storm, and Kristi's dream continues to unfold into something closer to the reality she sought. Yet their basketball connection is hardly dependent on how or where she's playing or if she's actually playing at all. Even if the opportunity to play in the WNBA had never existed, both assume that the basketball connection would persist as she pursued another basketball path in life, whether that be coaching or officiating as George believes she could also do.
It's a bond that, like her passion, can never be taken away regardless of the opportunity Kristi pursues.
"Whatever I'm doing in life, I don't see myself doing anything that doesn't have to do with the game of basketball," Toliver said. "After I'm finished playing or whatever it is, I know I want to pursue coaching on the college level. And my dad is a pretty knowledgeable guy, so I know I'll be using his basketball knowledge when I'm doing coaching as well.
"We'll always have a basketball relationship because I think we both, until the day we die, will always be involved in the game somehow."