From Russia with Love: Sonny Weems' Long Journey Back to the NBA

It took one year in Lithuania and three in Russia before Sonny Weems made his return to the NBA. The time spent away from his family was challenging, but he wouldn't change a thing.
January 12, 2016, 5:38pm
Photo by Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

A lot has changed since Sonny Weems was last in the NBA. When a carefree 25-year-old Weems left the league for Lithuania during the 2011 lockout, LeBron James hadn't yet won a ring and Stephen Curry couldn't stay healthy. Four years later, James is back in Cleveland chasing a third ring and Curry, a champion now himself, is well on his way to a second MVP.

Weems, who spent three years in Russia after a season in Lithuania, is now a reserve for the Phoenix Suns. He's also a new father counting his blessings and reflecting on all that basketball has given him. The experiences and lessons of the last four years are etched in the face and demeanour of a slimmer and calmer Weems, who has learned to slow down and appreciate every part of the journey.

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"I always told myself, 'Man I'll never play European basketball,'" Weems said. "Come to find out, I'd spend four years of my life over there."

Although Weems started his career with the Denver Nuggets, his first real opportunity came in Toronto where he immediately developed a tight bond with Raptors rookie DeMar DeRozan. During his time with the Raptors from 2009-11, Weems averaged 7.2 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game while he and DeRozan were inseparable. When the lockout hit, he quickly signed with Zalgiris Kaunas without an NBA out-clause included in his contract.

After his first year in Lithuania, Weems signed a lucrative three-year deal with CSKA Moscow and put his NBA dreams on hold. He worked on expanding his game and took pride in knowing he was doing what was best for his family—even when he felt a million miles away from the basketball world he'd grown up in.

"Russia's a different world," Weems said. "Everything is underground. My team, we were treated differently. We had our own plane. You had the president at your game. I haven't even seen the American president, but I've seen the Russian president.

"Our fans were different. As far as being compared to Greece, Germany, those fans are crazy. They really take it seriously. Throwing batteries, spitting on you, guys shooting fireworks, smoking cigarettes while you're playing. It's crazy."

Talking to guys who had made the jump before helped to prepare him for what to expect. What he didn't anticipate was how different the NBA had become.

"They always said jump-shooting teams weren't going to win and then you see Golden State," Weems said. "That's one thing NBA players really lacked when I was here—only one or two guys on the team could shoot. Now you've got ten. Now the game's really changed."

Since returning to the league with the Suns, Weems has enjoyed observing the number of 3-pointers being taken each night. Teams are now averaging more than five 3-pointers more per game compared to when he left the NBA at the end of the 2010-11 season.

Over that short time period, Weems said he's noticed the NBA transition into being guard-dominant and no longer a big man's league, with power forwards and centers able to step back and connect from long range.

"They're actually picking up on the European game, something the Spurs have been doing for a long time. The NBA was late on that," Weems explained.

Weems credited current Spurs assistant coach and former CSKA Moscow head coach Ettore Messina with helping him to adjust to a different pace and style of play overseas. Former teammate and Serbian point guard Milos Teodosic also helped him flourish and tighten up his game in Russia.

"You've got to be patient," Weems said. "There's no three seconds over there. You've got guys just standing in the lane. It teaches you how to play half-court basketball. How to use a half-court set, how to read defences, know everyone's position, where they'll be on the court. That's what really helped me a lot. Being over there, learning the half-court game. You have to learn to shoot the ball when you're over there."

Figuring out how to play overseas, Weems said, helped him expand his game and see the floor better. Away from the court, meanwhile, he says the exposure to different cultures and ways of living allowed him to appreciate differences in a way he previously hadn't been able to.

For all of the good, though, life away from loved ones got more difficult with time, particularly after the birth of his daughter, Sienna—back in Toronto—while he was overseas.

"It was kind of hard for me seeing her grow up, the pictures and the videos, and I wasn't there," Weems said. "I didn't have that problem until she was born and it made me want to get back and be here."

Back in the NBA, Sonny Weems is still waiting for his chance with the Suns. —Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a successful tenure in Russia where he was named a member of the All-Euroleague First Team as well a three-time VTB United League champion, Weems knew it was time to return to the United States at the conclusion of the 2014-2015 season. Averaging 13.1 points, four rebounds and 3.5 assists in nearly 27 minutes per game in his final season with CSKA Moscow was enough to make it happen. When the call came from the Suns this summer—on his birthday, while vacationing in Mexico—he was overcome with emotion. "I almost cried," he said. "I was back. It was probably the best birthday I've ever had."

Born in West Memphis, Arkansas, Weems is extremely close with his family and the time away from home due to the NBA schedule was hard enough, but the opportunity overseas was too good to pass up. Being home, finally, has helped him mentally deal with the realities of limited playing time with the Suns.

"It's kind of hard, me not playing a lot like I want to, like I know I can, but I also know it's a business and things change and things change around the league," he said. "I'm just being patient."

Weems appeared in just fives games in December, getting action in three toward the end of the month. He received limited minutes in two games to start January before sitting out the last couple.

Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek has pointed to his athleticism and experience and says that at some point he will get into their rotation. Like any competitor, Weems wants to be doing more than watching from the bench and playing spot minutes, but he's proud of his journey and all it has allowed for him and his family.

"I'm very happy seeing my family and how they're living now," he said. "The things they can do now, it made it all worth it. If I had to go back and do it again, I would do it."

Although the distance and time differences made for weird start times, Weems didn't lose track of what was happening in the NBA while he was away—especially when DeRozan was playing.

"I don't think I've missed a Raptors game since I left," Weems said. "As long as [DeRozan's] been a part of it, every game. Every game. Every game. League Pass."

DeRozan was surprised when he found out that Weems had been keeping tabs on his game, but said he was thrilled for his former teammate's return to the league. DeRozan received a call from him over the offseason with the good news. In the four years since Weems left Toronto, DeRozan has also become a father, as well as an All-Star and a growing leader within the Raptors locker room.

After a recent Toronto loss to the Suns, DeRozan and Weems had a moment to catch up in the Air Canada Centre hallways near the court where both had gotten their first real crack at the NBA. As DeRozan watched Weems' daughter running around, he thought about how far they both have come, on and off the floor.

"It's crazy how fast life goes by," DeRozan said. "Understanding the important things in life and growing up, really becoming a man [changes you]. Now having a family, prioritizing things in the right order [is important]."

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Like Weems, DeRozan didn't peg his friend for one to make the jump overseas.

"Not the kid from Memphis, going overseas." DeRozan said with a wide smile. "It was definitely an adjustment, but he made it through. He prevailed, and he got back in the league. I hope he gets a second chance to prove himself with playing time."

Weems continues to work and wait for that opportunity. His patience, instilled by his four years overseas, has been instrumental. Despite being back at the end of the bench, this is a different Weems than the 25-year-old that left the NBA.

"My mom tells me all the time, 'You're a man now,'" Weems said.