There seems to be a bull’s-eye on Canada these days. Toronto is the city that everybody picks on when the words “failure” and “franchise” are mentioned together. What about teams with less to show for their time in the League. The Clippers? The Timberwolves? Toronto is a beautiful city with arguably the greatest fan base in the NBA, so why all of the negativity? Why all of the struggles the team has endured over the last decade?
Well, the problem is that they just can’t seem to hold onto their star players.
You can’t blame Tracy McGrady for not re-signing with the team in 2000. He knew he was overshadowed by Vince Carter and wanted to play back home in Florida. Chris Bosh gave Toronto a chance when he could’ve left four years ago instead of signing an extension. But he didn’t. He chose to stay and hopefully be part of a winning franchise. Clearly that didn’t happen, but it wasn’t because of Bosh. In fact, when it comes right down to it, the franchise failed Bosh.
Bosh didn’t deserve to get booed, but Carter did. Vince quit on the franchise after they failed to go after top talent like Steve Nash and basically ended up pouting his way out of town. So what do the Raptors do from here? How can they save basketball in their city? Thus far, the Bryan Colangelo era has showed great promise, and he now has a team littered with promise. That’s the difference between now and then. But who will be the guy that steps up and says, “Okay, we’re talented, so lets get this thing done?”
It’s often hard to distinguish between the hard knocks in life and those of opportunity, but so far, Sonny Weems has learned how to get passed his early struggles of professional basketball. When the Lord blesses you with a gift, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s going to lead you down a path of success. In this day and age, it’s all about hard work. And through the first 16 games of this season, the Toronto Raptors’ Weems has become the definition.
Weems’ (whose real name is Clarence) time in the NBA hasn’t been nearly the vanilla smooth most look for. If anything, it’s been more like rocky road. Some of the world’s best have come from the playgrounds of New York, sunny California or the streets of Chicago. But if you’re coming out of Arkansas, unless your name is Derek Fisher, Scottie Pippen or Sidney Moncrief, chances are that even the most die-hard fans haven’t heard of you.
The same can’t be said about Money Weems.
Growing up in the King City (West Memphis) had some disadvantages for the now 23-year old with its gang violence and a murder rate that was twice the United States average. But how did he shy away from all of the distractions that land most young’uns in jail or worse? He picked up a basketball and never looked back.
He spent four years playing at West Memphis High School, and during his senior season he became an All-State player and helped command the Blue Devils to a 5A State Championship behind his 20-point, 14-rebound average. Despite all of those accomplishments, like most kids, when high school is over reality sets in. And Weems had to start his college career down the road less traveled.
Even with his athleticism and shooting ability, Sonny was forced to attend the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith before he hit the national stage. Eventually he was named the No. 1 junior college player in the nation – he even led Fort Smith to the National Junior College Athletic Association National Championship – before transferring to the University of Arkansas. Then, he helped lead the Razorbacks to their 3rd consecutive winning season before being bounced out of the first round.
During his senior season with the Hogs under new head coach John Pelphrey, Weems averaged 15.0 points and 4.5 assists and led his team to an upset win over Eric Gordon and Indiana in the NCAA tournament.
Despite working out for numerous teams at the NBA pre-draft camp and having solid speed and agility numbers, it just wasn’t enough to garner first-round status in a draft class that included Gordon, Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley. Teams saw plenty of flaws in Weems’ game, causing him to drop all the way to the 39th overall pick. When the Chicago Bulls did finally draft him, they immediately dealt him to the Denver Nuggets in a three-team deal for the draft rights to center Omer Asik.
Already considered a fringe player with nagging injuries, Weems spent most of his time riding the bench for the Nuggets. Eventually, the team sent him down to the D-League to play for the Colorado 14ers, where he averaged 18 points in just 10 games. Even with his stellar improvement and translatable-NBA game, Weems was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for next to nothing (Malik Allen, who is now with the Orlando Magic). Before he even got a chance to do some sightseeing, he was yet again traded, this time to the Toronto Raptors alongside Amir Johnson for Carlos Delfino and Roko Ukic. This trade was the breakthrough that Weems was waiting for. When he first arrived, the Raptors had a crowded backcourt with DeMar DeRozan, Hedo Turkoglu, Marco Belinelli and Antoine Wright. Belinelli, Wright and Turkoglu were eventually traded the following season.
Finally finding stability, Weems ended up playing 69 games for the Raptors during the 2009-10 season and averaged 7.5 points in 19.5 minutes per contest. Although not eye-popping numbers, Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo must have seen something in the young high-flier after he chose to sign Weems to a one-year option worth $854k this summer.
Every NBA player, whether established or not, knows that you can’t keep doing the same things over and over again. You have to add another move or two to your arsenal. Take Carter for example: in his early days with Toronto, all he did was dunk emphatically on his opponents until working on his outside shooting so that not only would he become a better player, but last in the League a little bit longer. The same goes for Weems. In his first two seasons in the League, he shot an abysmal 2-for-18 (13.3 percent) from three-point range. This season, he’s connected on 7-for-23 (30.4 percent).
According to Weems, he stayed in the gym all summer working on his outside shot, “I’d be there all day if I had to make 300,” Weems told the Globe and Mail.
Hard work does pay off, and now Weems has started the last eight games for the Raptors, with Toronto going 5-3. But it’s not just his three-point shooting that’s improved. He’s improved everywhere. According to Hoopdata.com, Weems is connecting on 71.8 percent of his shots at the rim, 51.7 percent from 10 feet, 47.1 percent from 10-15 feet and 41 percent from 16-23 feet out. Even with the improvement, it helps having the right kind of teammates that can get you a good look. When Andrea Bargnani is hot, a lot of eyes are on him and his jump shot, and when DeRozan is driving to the basket for a dunk, the defense collapses, which is going to leave someone open at the top of the key. And who better to hit the shot than Weems? He’s hit plenty of big shots already this season.
After drilling the game winning three-point shot against Orlando, a week later he made two big threes down the stretch against the Rockets and Toronto eventually won by 10.
Despite his major offensive improvement, Weems’ defense is what stands out a little bit more to NBA scouts around the League. After Wright was dealt to Sacramento, Weems became the Raptors’ best perimeter defender by using his speed and athleticism, allowing him to stay in front of his man somewhat effectively. That also helped him get inserted into the starting line-up 19 times last season.
Robert Laberge/Getty Images
You can see it in the way he plays and the focus that he has on the court. In Denver, Weems would be on the bench joking and laughing alongside J.R. Smith and Renaldo Balkman and not really paying attention or showing interest when George Karl would draw up a play. Now, it’s obvious that Weems is enjoying his time in T-Dot, something that most players from the past like Carter, Bosh and Turkoglu would never admit. DeRozan was the 9th pick in 2009 and has formed a special bond with Weems since joining the Raptors. The same goes for Johnson. Not only are they the future of Toronto basketball, but they’ve also dubbed themselves “The Young Onez” and have hopes of following the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers and forming the next generations Big Three. They go to events together and they eat together, forming chemistry both on and off the court.
But isn’t that what brothers are supposed to do, stand by each other’s side?
Maybe that’s now what drives Weems even more to succeed. Maybe that’s all he needed: too have fun on the basketball court. So now that he has found what seems to be a permanent home in Toronto, formed a brotherhood and now plays a vital role for the organization, can he help save the franchise? Weems is the guy that can bring this talented group of players together and bring the success that the fans of T-Dot have been longing for.
This new age Raptors squad is deep, young and talented, and they’re bringing something to the court that hasn’t been seen for a long time. Fun.
Andrew Macaluso is a contributing writer for Endangered Hoops. You can find more of his work at DimeMag.com, SLAMonline.com and as well as his blog, News From the Hardwood. You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @_andymac