Following Zalgiris’s final Euroleague contest in the fall of 2011, Sonny Weems returned to his two-story, brick house at the edge of the embattled town of Kaunas. The small city, tucked between two rivers, is actually the second-largest in Lithuania, and oddly enough reminded Weems of home, in West Memphis, Ark.
“From one end [of the city] to the other, if all the lights were green, it would probably take you five, 10 minutes,” Weems says.
Weems arrived at his home to an unlocked front door and assumed the personal chef Zalgiris provided accidentally left his home unlatched. He opened the door. A burglar had robbed him of a PlayStation, an XBox 360... and the underwear and left shoes his personal trainer Josh Oppenheimer had brought overseas. “They didn’t take any fancy clothes or jewelry,” Weems says before chuckling, remembering Oppenheimer’s unabashed rage. “He was so mad and confused. You should have seen him.”
The theft was simply the latest—and certainly quirkiest—of hurdles Weems would overcome during a multi-year expedition across Europe. The arctic, –10 chills that cloaked Kaunas during the winter. Countless language barriers with teammates and locals. First-hand encounters with Russia’s mistrustful political landscape. All were necessary challenges Weems faced before making an NBA comeback after enjoying three seasons with CSKA Moscow and the riches and lavish lifestyle that accompanied hooping for one of Europe's premiere teams.
“Growing up, every kid dreams about playing in the NBA,” Weems says. “So it was always in the back of my mind.”
The Phoenix Suns helped Weems turn that dream back into a reality.
Four years after becoming the only NBA player to sign a European contract without an opt-out clause during the 2011 lockout, Weems quietly inked a two-year, $5.8 million deal with the Suns while the rest of the basketball world fixated on Twitter and the apparent DeAndre Jordan hostage crisis.
Phoenix had scouted him closely for over two years. “He’s somebody that’s been on our radar for a bit and it’s been fun watching him develop,” says Suns assistant general manager Pat Connelly. The 6’6" Weems had been an effective scorer his first three seasons in the NBA, boasting an unusual offensive repertoire that combined midrange and post skills with terrifying athleticism. In high school, Weems long jumped 23’6” and high jumped 6’10” his senior year to win state championships in both events.
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Connelly has tracked Weems since his two-year junior college stint at University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, when the Suns executive was a graduate assistant at Baylor and Scott Drew attempted to recruit Weems as he led the Lions to the NJCAA national championship in 2006. After Weems transferred to Arkansas and led the Razorbacks to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, the Chicago Bulls made him the No. 39 pick in the 2008 NBA draft. Chicago immediately flipped Weems to the Denver in a three-team trade, with the Nuggets salivating as a player they ranked as a late first-round prospect somehow fell into the second round.
"The farther he slipped, the more interested we became. I feel very fortunate to get him where we did," Rex Chapman, then-Nuggets vice president of player personnel, told reporters in 2008. Weems would only play in 12 games for Denver, battling a groin injury that lingered from his senior year at Arkansas and struggling for minutes on a loaded Nuggets squad that reached the Western Conference finals.
The Nuggets promptly shipped Weems to Milwaukee after the season. His stint with the Bucks lasted just 19 days before he was traded yet again, alongside Amir Johnson, to the Toronto Raptors. Weems found a home in Toronto, posting strikingly similar numbers to Terrence Ross while serving as a reliable bench scorer to compliment Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani. Alas, the franchise handed over the keys to lottery pick DeMar DeRozan the next season.
Weems's momentum came to a screeching halt when the Raptors declined to pick up his option for the 2011-12 campaign. With just over $2 million in his career purse, Weems surveyed the NBA landscape with a potentially disastrous lockout looming and packed his bags for Lithuania.
“He was young, he needed to play,” says Roger Montgomery, Weems’s agent. “He hadn’t made much money in the NBA yet. He needed to go get some experience as opposed to sitting home.”
In Kaunas, Weems leaned on 35-year-old DeJuan Collins, who played at Division II Tuskegee Institute before transferring to LSU for his senior season. “He took me under his wing, showed me what to do and what not to do,” Weems says.
Upon arriving in Moscow to join CSKA a year later, head coach Ettore Messina, now on Gregg Popovich’s bench in San Antonio, taught Weems the true key to Euroleague ball. Overseas, basketball is a nuanced, meticulous marathon, not a sprint. “Everything I was doing I was going at warp speed. He just told me to slow down,” Weems says. “You actually have to be a basketball player. You actually have to think the game instead of just going out there and being an athlete.”
Weems blossomed into an All-Euroleague honoree this past season, having helped lead CSKA Moscow to the Euroleague Final Four each of the last three years. “He is much more battle tested,” says A.J. Mitnick, an assistant coach for Bnei Herzliya. “His overall skill and basketball IQ is more polished.”
This past season, Weems averaged 4.2 assists per game, the most of any non-point guard in the entire Euroleague. “You can see the maturity in his game now. He’s a much better passer,” Connelly says. “Every time you saw him you just came away impressed with his improvement.”
More necessary for his role in Phoenix, Weems expanded his range well beyond the three-point line. His last season in Toronto, Weems converted just 27.9% of his three-point attempts. Training with Oppenheimer, Weems drained over 34% of his outside shots each season overseas, culminating in a 40.1% mark in 2014-15 with CSKA. “We just got a lot of reps up and it was about mechanics and getting used to your shooting rhythm,” Weems says.
Weems became widely regarded as the best player in Europe last winter and was paid like it, too. Weems even turned down a fully guaranteed contract from the Hawks last year, electing to take a more lucrative deal in Moscow. “No matter what you do, you gotta go get your money,” Weems remembers Collins advising him.
Now 29—Weems and the Suns actually agreed to terms on his birthday, July 8—Weems’s pockets are full. He still has a large appetite for proving his worth against the world’s best, however. “I belong, that’s all,” Weems says. “I’m a rotation guy or a starter, that’s my goal. Nothing else.”
He also hopes to help the Suns return to the postseason. He’ll likely begin the season backing up P.J. Tucker. Weems will spend the first two weeks of august in Phoenix participating in off-season training. His flight from Arkansas to Phoenix provided an opportune moment to reflect on his vagabond career.
“I took the long road to get here,” Weems says. “And now I’m a Phoenix Sun.”