Let's get straight to it: It's been a tough return to the NBA for Sonny Weems. The player who was touted as a 3-and-D guy who would be the first shooting guard off the bench when he signed with the Phoenix Suns this summer has been utilized mostly in the Dionte Christmas role this season — designated cheerleader.
This is hardly what anyone envisioned for Weems when the Suns plucked him from Europe. Weems had been a star overseas, developing into an All-Euroleague player with CSKA Moscow. A strong preseason where he showcased his speed, athleticism, and playmaking ability only added to the expectations that Phoenix had unearthed another diamond in the rough.
"It's just a matter of time before I'm getting out there and playing heavy minutes," Weems said confidently during the preseason in an azcentral.com article. "There's a reason they brought me here.
"Once the regular season starts and it comes down to winning, that's when they'll see what I got."
But the exact opposite has happened for Weems since the regular season started. He is averaging a mere 1.3 points and 1.9 rebounds over the team's first eight games and has not played double-digit minutes since Oct. 30, seeing his playing time siphoned away by Ronnie Price, Archie Goodwin, and T.J. Warren. He even received a DNP-CD over that span.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of his struggles. It might be nothing more than an ill-timed slump. It could be that Weems is still adjusting to being a role player after several successful seasons as a star on his teams. Or it may be that Weems underestimated exactly how difficult a return to the NBA would be.
"I'm not coming in the league all frantic and in a rush to do everything," Weems said in the same azcentral.com article. "I've been here before. I've been playing professionally overseas. I'm used to everything. It's just about being me.
"The guys are a lot more athletic than European guys, but the one thing the European guys have on the NBA is they think the game a lot more. Not just one or two guys can facilitate. In Europe, all five guys really can think the game of basketball and know how to play. Not too many guys in this league know how to think the game."
It is possible that Weems underestimated the skill of NBA players after being away for four years and then thriving in the half-speed preseason. Whatever the reason for his struggles, though, it appears reality has caught up to Weems, and if he wants to regain the role once assumed his before the start of the season, he should take a page from another player who has traveled the same path — P.J. Tucker.
Tucker spent five seasons in Europe before the Suns came calling. He played for their Summer League team in 2012 before Phoenix offered him a two-year, partially guaranteed contract. He then needed to survive the cuts in the preseason and prove he deserved to stay in the regular season, but after every obstacle, there was Tucker, still standing.
He didn't make the team because he put up monster numbers. In fact, over Tucker's first eight games with the Suns, he averaged just 4.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in a little over 15 minutes per game. Tucker made the team and subsequently stuck with the team because of something he said to Paul Coro back in 2012: "I just stick my neck out and play hard. I never let anyone outwork me."
A lot of players say things like this, but Tucker was one of the few who followed through. During that first year, it was impossible for Tucker to enter the game and go unseen. If there was a loose ball, he was diving for it. If there was an important rebound, he was fighting for it. If an opponent caught fire, he was on him like a cheap suit. It didn't matter, ultimately, what Tucker's numbers were — good or bad; he made an impact regardless, and that is what kept him on the floor.
The same has not been true of Weems, who has a knack for checking in and going unnoticed from that point on, culminating in another disappointing effort and another opportunity lost to show coach Hornacek that he should be playing. If Weems wants to set foot on the court for meaningful minutes and earn the right to play through his struggles, then he needs to change his approach.
He needs to Tucker-ize his game.