On Wednesday evening, Sophie Cunningham reached another one of her basketball goals.
The Columbia native was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury with the 13th selection in the 2019 WNBA Draft Wednesday. Cunningham became just the eighth Missouri player drafted since the inaugural draft in 1997 and is the highest picked Missouri player ever. Amanda Lassiter was Missouri's first draft pick when she was selected No. 15 in 2001.
Cunningham will go straight into training camp, where she will look to earn her spot on the Phoenix roster before the season begins on May 24.
“I knew that this is where God wanted me to be,” Cunningham said in a phone interview. “I’m going to go out there work hard and show my blue-collar mentality. It was such a relief just to hear your name, especially with the people you love around you.”
Cunningham was one of 12 players in New York City attending the WNBA Draft and was surrounded by her parents, Jim and Paula Cunningham, and sister Lindsey Cunningham. Missouri head coach Robin Pingeton was also in attendance.
There was never a doubt of if Cunningham would get drafted, it was just a matter of when. She was projected as a late first-round pick for much of the process, but as the first round ended, she hadn’t been selected.
Cunningham admitted to being nervous as the picks continued, but she didn’t wait long as she was selected with the first pick in the second round.
“I was nervous because I was talking to coaches and you hear things, but you never know until it happens,” Cunningham said. “I’ve been nervous the whole day. I’m just happy to be here now.”
Cunningham will join a loaded Mercury roster that includes legendary guard Diana Taurasi and veteran center Brittney Griner. Asked on the broadcast who her favorite player on the team will be, Cunningham didn’t answer, saying she is just excited to get drafted.
But there is still work to do before she takes the floor, she has to earn a spot on the roster. That’s not an opportunity Cunningham is taking for granted.
“I’m in my position because I do outwork my opponents,” she said. “I have a high IQ and I know the game. I’m willing to do the dirty work. I think if I can outwork them I will do just fine.”
She’s also in her position, because at Missouri Cunningham made herself into a dominant scorer. She set the program record in career points with 2,187 points and averaged 17.8 points per game in her senior year, fifth in the Southeastern Conference. Cunningham was also named an Associated Press third team All-American, the program’s first AP All-American.
Along with her scoring ability, Cunningham also became known for her competitiveness, which the Mercury loved. Her toughness and will to win is ingrained in who Cunningham is and how she was raised.
And though that toughness may have rubbed some opponents the wrong way in her time at Missouri, Mercury coach Sandy Brondello only sees it as a positive.
"I don't think she is a dirty player," Brondello said in a conference call. "I think she just has a will to win."
It's no surprise that Cunningham's personality is part of what stood out to the Mercury, because before the draft LaChina Robinson, a WNBA analyst, said that her toughness is part of what she thinks will help Cunnningham be successful.
“When I look at the competitiveness across this draft, she is definitely in my top three just in terms of how she gets after it at both ends,” Robinson said on a conference call before the draft. “Is she going to come in and start for a WNBA team? I don't see her having that impact, but I definitely think she has a great chance of making a roster. It really is centered in her competitiveness, work ethic and versatility.”
As a 6-foot-1 guard, Cunningham showed a knack for being able to score and defend many different positions. She shot 40 percent from deep, 50 percent from the floor, 83 percent from the free throw line and averaged three assists a game.
“Her versatility is an asset,” Robinson also said. “She can play inside-out. She’s as tough in the post and one-on-one situations as any five players that you’ll see. She can also step out and impact the game from the perimeter. So I think she has a really good shot at making a WNBA roster.”
Cunningham became the first Missouri player drafted since Bri Kulas was drafted by the San Antonio Stars in 2014. Kulas was cut before the season began. Other Missouri players drafted were LaToya Bond and Christelle N’Garsanet in 2006, Evan Unrau in 2004 and Amanda Lassiter and Marlena Williams in 2001.
There is no doubt that Cunningham has left her mark on her hometown. She became arguably the best player in Missouri program history, that after winning four straight state championships at Rock Bridge High School.
Now she’s been picked 13th overall in the WNBA Draft.
“When people ask me ‘Oh who do you play for?’ now I’m going to have to be like, ‘I’m a pro now,’ but I have to go out there and earn it,” Cunningham said. “I have to earn a spot and I’m willing to do it. I’m so excited.”