Back in 2009 at KeyArena, 6,796 fans witnessed what appeared to be then-rookie guard Kristi Toliver turning a corner in the Chicago Sky's rather surprising 86-81 victory over the Seattle Storm.
Smoothly navigating the court to find gaps in the defense and beautifully placing passes to teammates, Toliver recorded what still stand as career-highs in three pointers made (6-for-8) and assists (7), with an elite pure point rating of 6.17 and assist ratio of 33.3% in addition to dropping 22 points in an that has a humbling effect on many rookies.
As much as the game was a breakout performance by Toliver, it was simply a beautiful basketball performance to watch no matter who you were rooting for - one would hope that somewhere deep down we all have the capacity to set aside whatever allegiances we have to appreciate someone realizing their potential in front of our eyes.
A few days after that game, I wrote that, "for now, if [Toliver] is given minutes and a clear role (in a clearly structured system) her basketball IQ will take her a long way and perhaps catapult her into that "contender" range." Of course, she never really had a clear role with the Sky - just five games later, Toliver began picking up DNP-CDs. In one stretch in August 2009, she had consecutive games in which she seemingly got back into the rotation with 22 minutes against the Phoenix Mercury only to fall back out of it with about 3 against the Detroit Shock and then another DNP-CD against the Los Angeles Sparks. Naturally, she played 22 minutes in the next game against New York Liberty and set what still stands as her career-high with 25 points.
When she did get on the floor, it was never clear as an outside observer what exactly the 2009 Sky were trying to accomplish so I'll just say it wasn't my conception of "a clearly structured system". Toliver never found a rhythm in her rookie season and at least partially because there was really no systematic way for her to build on career-high performances that book-ended riding the bench.
Looking back on the situation now, Toliver recently said in an interview that she has, "Never been involved in anything like that", also likely a somewhat generous understatement - her father called it "demoralizing" for her in that same father-daughter story and needless to say she wanted out of there.
Last year's trade to the Los Angeles Sparks was obviously a welcome change for Toliver, not just for her state of mind, but because they're a team that obviously needs her - they needed a depth in their guard rotation and, perhaps most of all, someone who could shoot the ball. It was the opportunity she wanted a defined role with a team that needed what she offered.
In a way, her performance against the Storm in last night's 74-50 win on Father's Day with her father in attendance is a fitting resolution scene in the unfolding narrative of Toliver pursuing the professional basketball dream fomented on a mini-hoop; if indeed she's taking a step forward in her development with the Sparks this year, having her father there as he's been at each step along the way is perfect.
That's not at all to say that last night's game against the Storm was better than the one I saw in 2009 at KeyArena - statistically, at least, she put up numbers during 10 minutes of play in the fourth quarter when the Storm seemed to have conceded victory to the Sparks. But the confidence and poise she demonstrated was impressive and in helping to put away the reigning, if limping, WNBA champion Toliver showed that she's the type of player the Sparks can depend upon to come off the bench and not just give "quality minutes" but actually shoulder some of the burden for winning.
She got an opportunity surrounded with veterans in a winning situation, she has been given a defined role on the team, and, thus far, she looks comfortable.
Sparks statistical MVP: Toliver had a well-rounded effort against the Storm
Ironically, given her reputation and 52.6% 3-point shooting through the Sparks' first three games this season, the praise for Toliver's latest performance against the Storm comes without her even hitting a three. But with her game-high 5 assists to only 2 turnovers, Toliver had an assist ratio of 28.86% and turnover ratio of 11.54% for the type of distributing efficiency you might expect from an elite point guard like Sue Bird or Ticha Penicheiro. Additionally, particularly for someone typecast as a shooting specialist, her 3-for-3 free throw shooting was good for a 33.33% free throw rate. Her four defensive rebounds was good for a solid 21% defensive rebounding percentage.
What you have to appreciate about the game, though not by any means spectacular, is that she came in off the bench and gave the Sparks a little bit of everything with 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. Yes, she added numbers during a lackluster performance by the Storm in the fourth quarter, but she's also showing that she could emerge as a strong floor leader for the team's second unit. It's probably not the kind of role Toliver envisioned when drafted third overall in 2009, but she finally finds herself able to settle into a role.
Key player: Ebony Hoffman led a 40-7 bench scoring advantage for the Sparks
Toliver's growth on the Sparks is just part of the story what makes this team potentially so potent - they have significantly increased their bench depth. Free agent forward addition Ebony Hoffman was their big prize this off-season and has proven to be an outstanding fit.
Against the Storm, Hoffman had a team-high 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting (71% true shooting percentage) and like Toliver did a little bit (less) of everything. But with Hoffman and Toliver making the two biggest statistical contributions on the team, the bench as a whole was also impressive accounting for a whopping 59.34% of the Sparks' total statistical production compared to the Storm bench's -33% (meaning they hurt the team while on the floor, as a whole). Although 3-point shooting is a strength on the Sparks' bench, that they beat the Storm only hitting 6-for-11 both shows the versatility of this team and that their getting themselves good shots.
Key statistic: Sparks synergy helps them pull ahead in the second quarter
The Storm didn't play terribly when the Sparks pulled used a 25-17 second quarter to go into halftime with a 39-25 lead. The Sparks just had a simply outstanding second quarter, shooting 73.3% and winning the battle of the boards 7-4. When they are playing like that - particularly rebounding, which is a significant weakness for this team - they are nearly impossible to stop, especially when the Storm are playing only mediocre basketball.
Storm statistical MVP: Sue Bird carries the Storm in loss
The second quarter was a perfect example of what's plaguing the Storm so far this season - they didn't play horribly, but they neither played well enough to beat a team that has improved as much as the Sparks nor the type of balanced game that made the Storm great last season.
While Bird and Swin Cash combined to 5-for-7 in the second quarter, the rest of the team only shot 2-for-9. That means two things: first, they simply weren't able to establish anything in the paint, partially because they're not able to knock down outside shots consistently. Second, Bird shifting into more of a scorer's role, which is not bad at all but noteworthy in terms of the fluidity of their offense.
With her game-high 15 points and three assists, Bird was responsible for 72.12% of the team's overall production and it's safe to say that that's uncommon for the Storm. The thing that stands out most is that her assist ratio of 17.20% puts her below the threshold for the average WNBA point guard and while her 22.11% usage ratio is much higher than average for WNBA point guards. So in looking for her shot more often, she's creating assists less often. But that's not necessarily representative of anything she's doing - outside of the second quarter when the Storm shot 43.8%, the team shot 13-for-50 (26%). Take out Bird's production over those three quarters (3-for-8) and you have 10-for-42 shooting (23%). A team shooting under 30% for the majority of a game and lacking balance is going to struggle no matter what basketball league their playing in.
Will this persist for the Storm?
It's hard to imagine Lauren Jackson continuing to turn in single digit scoring performances all season while the team shoots 4-for-20 from three point land (granted, the two things are connected). But it also seemed nearly impossible to imagine them being down 26 points at home again this season as they were at halftime during their last loss to the Lynx. Then they lost by 24 on the road to a deeper, more versatile Sparks team two games later.
At this point, the most accurate thing to say about the Storm is probably that it's still early.
SBN Seattle storystream for the game
Kristi Toliver's Father-Daughter 'Basketball Connection' Still Evolving With Her WNBA Career