by Daniel Olsen | The last pick in the NBA draft is usually known as Mr. Irrelevant. However, what if this year the 60th pick has the potential to be someone relevant? Perhaps Sam Merrill was overlooked due to the absence of March Madness games to build his resume? What if he wasn’t done making big shots? We are about to answer those questions as we take a deep dive into what has been a successful preseason for one Utah State Aggie basketball player.
Sam Merrill isn’t just any Aggie. If you make a short list for greatest Aggie ever, these would be the three candidates:
The Lakers reportedly intended to draft Estes. Unfortunately, he suffered a tragic death after a legendary 48-point scoring performance. Had he returned his senior year, he would easily have had the school scoring record. He was a consensus second-team All-American in 1965. Many in Cache Valley agree that he is the greatest Aggie basketball player who ever lived. An athletic facility next to the Aggie basketball arena, The Wayne Estes Center, is named after him.
This is a familiar name in recent memory. Jaycee Carol became the leading scorer in school history in 2008. He excelled in the Western Athletic Conference but, due to the little notoriety of the one-bid league and his smaller frame, he was undrafted. He tried out for several NBA teams before going to Spain to become a legendary scorer for Real Madrid.
Sam Merrill has experienced the highs and lows of the college athletic experience. He spent time in the struggling years in the Tim Duryea era and had to share the backcourt with another scoring freshman in Koby McEwen. He went from one of the worst Aggie teams in the last decade to the first team to punch their ticket to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in March. His incredible contested game-winner from downtown put the nail in the coffin for the Aztecs. When the pandemic hit, that was cancelled and he began preparing for an NBA Draft unlike ever before.
Once again, Aggie fans were waiting for the final hour on the night of a Draft. There was a similar situation earlier in the year when USU quarterback Jordan Love was selected near the end of the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. At the last second, the New Orleans Pelicans Pelicans traded the 60th pick to the Milwaukee Bucks. At that moment, perhaps you could say one shot was worth “a million Bucks” for “Money” Merrill. He would later sign a two year $1.5 million contract with the team. America’s Dairyland must love Aggie athletes for more than their love of good dairy products!
As the games went on, Merrill only got better. He had a decent 1-3 shooting night in the first game against the Dallas Mavericks. At that point he seemed to just be getting used to the slightly further back NBA three. Merrill’s first shot was short but he swished the second attempt on a step-back three that would make James Harden proud. The third one was a little long. While 33 percent is below is average in college, it was a small sample size in his first game.
In the second game, Merrill had a slightly better shooting percentage. He again made just one from beyond the arc but only out of two field goal attempts. The other miss was a long two which was his first non-three attempt of the NBA preseason. Through his first two games, both against Dallas, Merrill had a dead even plus/minus. He only played four minutes in the second game as opposed to seven minutes in the first.
Finally, Merrill caught fire in. Against the same Pelicans that traded the pick for Merrill to the Bucks, number 15 out of Utah State University was doing it all in his third and final preseason game. He chase-down-blocked Lonzo Ball, the number two pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and shot 2-3 from three and 2-4 from the field. He also recorded his first free throw. Merrill shot the technical foul shot due to a defensive three-in-the-key call. This was likely due to his career 89 percent from the charity stripe in college.
While he also had a rebound to add to his stat line, he has yet to record an assist. When he gets the ball, it’s usually off a screen. He did not record a single turnover which highlights how high his basketball IQ is. He seems like a willing defender who wants to prove doubters wrong. His inability to keep up with athletic guards was the main knock on his game by many NBA experts prior to the draft. He did have two personal fouls in this final game. However, that was with significantly more playing time as he was on the court for 15 minutes. He is able to stay with his defender and the fouls were due to an increase in his aggressiveness. Although the Bucks lost all preseason games, Merrill was a bright spot and will continue to be when the games actually matter.
It is good news to see that Merrill has accepted his role on the team as a shooter. While he was talented with the ball in his hands in college, he doesn’t need to be the distributor for the team. As his skills improve maybe that’s a possibility but for now he seems to have embraced the same role that Kyle Korver had. Jazz and also Bucks fans have been raving about the comparison on social media as Korver played for both teams.
Merrill finished the preseason shooting 57 percent from three, 44 percent from the field and 100 percent from the free throw line. While it is a small sample size, it is a good sign that Merrill hasn’t forgotten how to shoot the basketball. His shooting form is as pretty as the Ball brother’s shots are ugly. Legends weren’t made in the preseason but if he keeps this up, we could be calling him “Money Merrill” for years to come.
Featured image courtesy Isaac Brekken | Associated Press