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Phoenix’s Sophie Cunningham credits her growth to Tina Charles exit

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham is crediting Tina Charles’ departure from Phoenix in June as a main catalyst for her career-best year.

Charles signed a one-year contract with the Mercury in February but agreed to a contract divorce in June, later signing with the Seattle Storm. The former WNBA MVP averaged 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in 16 appearances with the Mercury.

Cunningham averaged 12.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game in her fourth WNBA season — all career highs. She more than doubled her points and rebounds per game compared to last season.

“There was a lot of beauty in the chaos. I don’t think there’s ever been a team that’s endured what we’ve endured as the Phoenix Mercury,” Cunningham said of the season.

The team faced a number of trials, including Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia since February, Charles’ contract divorce in June and Skylar Diggins-Smith’s absence in the waning games of the season.

Cunningham, though, called Charles’ exit the “best thing that could’ve happened to me” in her end-of-season interview Sunday.

“I think that really helped me have the opportunity that I had,” she said. “I’ve never played the four position in my life, but it honestly opened up a lot for me on the court, especially my 3-point shooting.

“This year has been a confidence booster for me. I think there’s been a lot of areas that have showed me what I need to work on in my game. But I think it’s proven that I belong here, I really can make a dent in this league.”

On top of her own play, Cunningham said the team made style adjustments in Charles’ absence, which allowed other players more room to shine.

“It opened up a lot for our drivers, too,” she added. “I think that we kind of went small ball, but you know they won championships here in the past with small ball. Even though it may be a defensive liability, you make up for it by being scrappy and outworking your opponent.”

While Cunningham helped fill a hole during the regular season for the Mercury, she struggled a bit during the playoffs.

In the two games of the Mercury’s first-round sweep at the hands of the Las Vegas Aces, Cunningham averaged 7.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. She averaged the fourth-most points behind Diamond DeShields (19.5 points), Kaela Davis (16.0) and Megan Guastafson (9.0).

Both Diana Taurasi (quad injury) and Skylar Diggins-Smith (personal reasons) missed the playoff series.