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LOS ANGELES -- Sparks coach Carol Ross never doubted that she had a scorer on her team in point guard Kristi Toliver. Whether Toliver could put the ball in the basket was never the issue.
But Toliver marked the 2012 season by rounding out her game in a few more very important ways.
The fifth-year player from Maryland shook off previous disappointments. She became a distributor and a defender. And on Thursday, as the Sparks were preparing to open the WNBA playoffs against the San Antonio Silver Stars at the Galen Center, she officially became the WNBA's most improved player for 2012.
Toliver stopped warming up and walked over with a shy smile to talk about an honor that felt hard-won.
"I'm going to enjoy it because it's proof that hard work pays off, all the hours in the gym and outside of the gym," Toliver said. "The persistence and resilience that I've had in my pro career, the success and good things didn't happen right away, and it's nice that it's all paying off now."
Toliver started 33 games for Los Angeles, establishing career highs in scoring (17.5), assists (4.9), rebounds (3.2) and steals (1.3), as well as field goal percentage (.491) and minutes (31.5 mpg).
Her offense propelled Los Angeles into the postseason, as she scored at least 20 points in every game in August and was the Western Conference player of the month.
"It's a credit to all her hard work and her belief in herself," Ross said. "To see it all come together, for her to have success, it's not a secret anymore. Everybody is acknowledging it now, really, what I think people should have known all along. She's a heck of a player."
Earlier in her career, Toliver was a scoring spark off the bench. Now, she's a go-to talent with all-around game.
"To not just shoot, but be a great distributor, and her ability to pass has been under-acknowledged," Ross said. "On the defensive side, she's been more engaged, more accountable. She's wanted to be complete. This isn't football, you don't sub out when you cross half-court. She has embraced being a complete player."
Toliver isn't done yet.
"I feel like there's belief that I can be an elite player at this level, but I'm not there yet," Toliver said. "I wanted to be higher in the league in assists and I was fourth, and that's a step. That will be another goal for me, to be the top assist person.
"I'm never satisfied, that's how I'm built. I was sixth in scoring and fourth in assists and I want to be No. 1 in both. That's just how I approach things."