Heading into her fifth season with the Phoenix Mercury, Sophie Cunningham is shifting into a veteran role. The 26-year-old Cunningham can offer advice to the newbies, and she’s the person who will get the team together for dinners.
With Brittney Griner back — and last year’s drama behind the Mercury — Cunningham is embracing the duty of helping the Mercury come together as a winner.
"I don't think it's rocket science," Cunningham said. "When teams get along and love each other outside the court and you have that bond, your chemistry on the court is just going to be even more tighter. And that's exactly what we've been lacking the past couple of years.
"And so it's been my responsibility to have the team dinners and have the team bonding. It doesn't have to be the typical team bonding, like just go enjoy each other. And so far we've been doing that, and the first couple days of training camp have been awesome."
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After spending the 2021-22 offseason in France, Cunningham stayed in the United States after the Mercury were knocked out of the 2022 WNBA playoffs. She took on a different job, serving as a guest analyst for Phoenix Suns broadcasts on Bally Sports, and she said the experience helped her understand basketball in a new way. She even found herself texting teammate Diana Taurasi after the Phoenix Suns' playoff game earlier in the week to discuss the schemes the team used.
"I never knew doing broadcasting would open your eyes," Cunningham said. "I did a little bit of some college games, but this is a whole new level.
"Just seeing the scheme, seeing their rotations, the things they do to change it up in a game, (it) was awesome. I hope that I can bring that knowledge and that experience of watching it to this team."
Cunningham’s education in the game is going to be important this season as the Mercury try to return to the success of the 2021 team, which made it to the WNBA Finals before losing to the Chicago Sky. Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard was impressed with the work Cunningham put in during the offseason.
"Sophie was a contender for most improved player last year, and I think she has just continued to build on that," Nygaard said. "She has been in Phoenix for the offseason and been really dedicated to her game, not just her skills but (also) her strength and conditioning, and (she) is extremely motivated to have a big year this year.
"So I think adding more versatility to what she already brought, which is already a very versatile player, but also, you know, Sophie's a dog. She's our dog. She's gonna go, and you can't ever forget that part of her game. We just want her to keep that as well."
Cunningham's numbers took a huge jump in 2022. Starting 20 of 28 games, the 6-foot-1 guard more than doubled her scoring average (12.6 points per game) and 3-pointers (72) while playing the most minutes of her career (29.5 per game). She also finished eighth in the WNBA in 3-point percentage (40.0) and wants to stay in that elite group of shooters.
"I want to be one of the top-10 3-point shooters in the league, and I think I'm more than capable," Cunningham said. "I want to be a 3-point threat every time I get the ball.
"I've worked a lot on my midrange game. I've worked a lot on coming off pick-and-rolls defensively, getting stronger, and I'm confident in that. And I think I'm going to keep growing in it because I'm putting the work in the weight room. I'm changing my diet, and I just believe in myself. And I think that if I get better every single day, stack the days, then naturally you're just going to be where you're supposed to be.
"And so for me, it's just being a shooter and being a threat every time I get to."