Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham drafted by Phoenix Mercury

After achieving stardom in her hometown, Missouri’s all-time leading scorer will play out of Mid-Missouri for the first time.
Missouri's Sophie Cunningham was drafted in the second round of the WNBA Draft on Wednesday, April 10 by the Phoenix Mercury as the No. 13 overall pick. Zach Bland/Mizzou Athletics

One of Columbia’s best-ever homegrown athletes is officially headed into the world of professional sports.

Former Missouri women’s basketball star Sophie Cunningham learned the next step in her decorated career Wednesday when she was selected 13th overall by the Phoenix Mercury at the WNBA Draft in New York City.

Cunningham was the face of MU women’s basketball for much of her time as a Tiger, leading the team to the NCAA Tournament in each of her four seasons and becoming the program’s all-time leading scorer with a total of 2,187 points. Off the court, she earned the nickname “Mayor of Columbia” as the program grew in popularity and exposure.

A projected late first- or early second-round pick, Cunningham sat at a table with her sister and parents at Nike’s New York Headquarters as the opening round unfolded. About an hour into the evening’s proceedings, her name was called as the first pick of the second round.

“I just love the game,” Cunningham told ESPN’s Holly Rowe shortly after her selection. “I’m really excited to get out there and go to work.”

The Mercury finished fifth in the 12-team WNBA last season with a 20-14 record, falling in the playoff semifinals to the Seattle Storm. They boast one of the best players in league history in Diana Taurasi, a nine-time all-star who averaged 20.7 points per game last season for coach Sandy Brondello’s squad.

Should Cunningham make the 12-woman roster, her professional debut could come in the Mercury’s season opener May 25 on the road at Seattle. The game will be nationally televised on ABC as the Storm honor their 2018 league championship team.

Despite her status as a college star and one of just 12 players invited to witness the WNBA Draft in person, making the final cut in Phoenix may not be a guarantee for Cunningham. According to the Columbia Missourian, only nine of last year’s twelve first-round draft picks completed training camp with their respective teams.

Regardless of Cunningham’s eventual WNBA status, a professional career overseas is likely in her future as well. Many WNBA players spend their offseasons playing in European or Asian leagues, which offer bigger paydays than the WNBA thanks to their lack of a salary cap structure.

Cunningham’s health could be a potential concern worth monitoring in the coming weeks and months. While she never missed significant time in college due to injuries, Cunningham frequently dealt with nagging issues and minor ailments that caused her to miss offseason workouts or briefly check out of games. With the WNBA season beginning next month and a possible overseas career filling up the basketball calendar, Cunningham might not be seeing much down time from basketball any time soon.

Asked by Rowe whether she looked forward to playing with any specific teammates in Phoenix, Cunningham declined to name names but expressed a willingness to learn.

‘I’m not going to say one,” Cunningham said. “I’m just so excited to be a sponge and soak it all up from the legends.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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