August 5, 2022
How Sophie Cunningham has embraced opportunity in the second half of the season
In Phoenix, one person's departure is another one's treasure
Another opportunity. Something players of all sports crave for. For WNBA players, that opportunity is everything.
Since the all-star break, one player leads the WNBA in minutes played, is second in both three point makes and attempts, as well as top-15 in points and steals. With those facts, one might suggest this player must be an All-Star, right?
This someone, however, is looking like a most-improved player candidate. Sophie Cunningham is a former University of Missouri standout drafted 13th overall by the Phoenix Mercury in 2019. In college, she oozed potential as she became the university’s all-time leading scorer (2,187 points) and in leader in free throws made (537). Cunningham also ranks second in Tigers history in three pointers made (238), three point percentage (.403) and free throw percentage (.839). Since being drafted by Phoenix, she continued to evolve her game. Nearly every statistical category has increased for the fourth-year pro.
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In the team’s first match against the Connecticut Sun in June, Diana Taurasi knew the opportunity that was ahead for her running mate.
“Whenever Sophie plays, the level of the game goes up. And you know, she’s done that consistently every year she’s been on our team. And that’s why she’s so important to what we do,” Taurasi said.
The level of intensity is a constant for Cunningham. However, it was jolted when former Mercury center Tina Charles negotiated a “contract divorce” in late June. Cunningham mentioned how that event flourished her game.
“Honestly, Tina leaving was honestly the best thing that could have happened to me this year because it opened up the floor for me,” Cunningham explained. “When you have playmakers like Diana and Skylar (Diggins-Smith), defenses have to focus on them. I mean, they leave me wide open sometimes. And so I think that’s the best thing that could have happened. I haven’t changed anything, I’ve just gotten another opportunity so I just have to capitalize on it.”
But wait… there’s more opportunity
That opportunity transpired in the first game after the all-star break. A 118-107 double overtime, thrilling loss against the Minnesota Lynx presented more than a few highlights. The main course featured a 36-piece from Cunningham in 47 minutes, while shooting 6-for-11 from three. All of this, five days after eclipsing her career-high 23 points against the Liberty a week prior.
Opportunities are a valuable commodity in the WNBA and Cunningham is taking full advantage. Postgame against the Connecticut Sun on Tuesday, Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard credits her success to her growing confidence.
“I think what she’s got going on now is some confidence. And so she gets a little bit of space, she’s ready to shoot, and her teammates know she can make it. So they’re finding her. It’s a nice assist to find Sophie open on the perimeter. I think she’s just playing with a ton of confidence. Once a player starts to really understand what they can do, it’s great and Sophie is doing that,” Nygaard said.
One statistic that stands out is points per possession, where Cunningham ranks first ahead of all-stars Elena Delle Donne and MVP candidate Breanna Stewart with 1.14, per Synergy. After the loss against the New York Liberty, Cunningham was asked about this particular number. Brianna Turner chimed in and described her impact. “Sophie has been super dynamic. Obviously Sophie’s playing the four position now and she obviously can space the floor out and play with the guards; that really helps us keep our offense open. She’s playing great,” Turner said.
How “great” is great?
Great might be a bit of an understatement since the break. In that game, the Mizzou alumni scored a team-high 21 points while going 3-for-9 from the three point line. That consistency is on full display, as Cunningham is 11th in scoring and only behind Taurasi for most threes made and attempted. Cunningham scored the most points in three of the team’s seven games.
It hasn’t just been the number of threes, but her efficiency. Of the starters who have played more than 24 games, Cunningham ranks fifth in effective field goal percentage (EFG%) at 58.3%. To put that into context, nearly 68% of her shots are threes, whereas her peers ahead of her (Sylvia Fowles, Teaira McCowan) score almost solely inside. Teammates are getting Cunningham the ball and she is making teams pay.
As a former player, Nygaard understands confidence and described her perspective on Cunningham’s exuding confidence.
“It’s not easy to be a pro basketball player, especially coming from, you know, most of the time, your whole life being the best player on the court, even in college games, it isn’t that hard. And when you come to the pro level, it becomes really hard and really challenging and so many new ways,” Nygaard said. “And it takes a really resilient person, and a tough minded person to fight through that and build that confidence. We’re really seeing that from Sophie; this year is a big year for her.
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Teammates took notice, especially Taurasi, who compared Cunningham to her wife, Penny Taylor, after their home win against the Los Angeles Sparks. “I gave her [Cunningham] a nickname like two weeks ago and she’s starting to live up to it,” Taurasi said. “Baby Penny (Taylor). That’s what Penny used to do at the four…Sophie’s getting there.”
After hearing that comparison, Cunningham chuckled and went with the nickname.
“No, I’ll go with it,” Cunningham chuckled. “But you know, Penny is a great, so I have a lot to do and a lot to work on. When a GOAT like that gives you a compliment when Penny is one of the best in the whole world, it’s nice. Like I said, you can call me Baby Penny but I still got a lot of work to do.”
Written by Hayden Cilley
Hayden Cilley covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. He is currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.