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Why former Aggie great Sam Merrill is optimistic heading into NBA draft

Utah State guard Sam Merrill dribbles against San Diego State Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Logan, Utah. Merrill hopes to hear his name called during the NBA draft on Wednesday night.
AP Photo/Eli Lucer

LOGAN — After being raised on Utah State basketball and then starring for the Aggies the past four years, Sam Merrill is extremely well versed in the history of USU basketball for a 24-year-old.

When asked who was the last Aggie to be selected in the NBA draft, he quickly responded, “It was Greg, right? Greg Grant.”

Like Merrill, Greg Grant was also a returned missionary from the Salt Lake City area who ended up starring for the Aggies. And Grant, who graduated as USU’s all-time leading scorer, ended up being picked by the Detroit Pistons.

But that was 34 years ago. And back in 1986, the NBA draft was comprised of seven rounds, allowing Grant to be selected in the sixth round with 132nd overall pick.

But since 1989, the NBA draft has only gone two rounds deep, and in that time, no Aggie has heard his name called on draft day. And while a handful of players like the Aggies’ all-time leading scorer Jaycee Carroll and hall of famer Spencer Nelson have spent time playing in the NBA’s summer league or in a training camp, the last former USU player to even play in the league was Desmond Penigar, who enjoyed a “cup of coffee” in the NBA back in 2004 courtesy of a 10-day contract with the Orlando Magic.

So, when the 2020 NBA draft is finally held Wednesday night, Merrill knows that it’s not just him and his family that are hoping he’s selected by a professional organization. His alma mater and Aggie fans also have high hopes for the second-leading scorer in school history.

“It’s definitely something that’s on my mind, and something that I’ve thought about during my time at Utah State,” Merrill said. “It’s important that you get guys in the league. And for some reason, Utah State’s been a great program, but it just hasn’t been able to do that where a lot of schools that aren’t as good as Utah State have been able to put guys into the pros.

“So if I do get drafted, it would obviously be the first time in a long time, and that’s certainly important from a recruiting standpoint. It would be awesome for the school, and for me to be able to represent Utah State in that way would be incredible.”

Certainly working in Merrill’s favor is that he ended the 2019-20 season in near-perfect fashion, guiding the Aggies to their second straight Mountain West tourney title in a row last March. The 2019 Mountain West Player of the Year was the MVP of the conference tournament as both a junior and senior, and Merrill capped off his storybook collegiate career by burying the game-winning 3-pointer against fifth-ranked San Diego State in the championship game of last year’s MW tournament.

Utah State’s Sam Merrill hoist the trophy for MVP after defeating San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference tournament championship game Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas.
AP Photo/Isaac Brekken

Merrill scored 27 points in that stunning upset of the Aztecs on March 7, after scoring 29 and 27 points in USU’s first two games in Las Vegas. But he and the Aggies were denied an opportunity to continue their hot streak on the national stage when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NCAA Tournament.

“It was a great way to go out just from a Utah State perspective and just the career I had. In hindsight it was the perfect way,” Merrill said. “And from an NBA standpoint, that’s the last film that people have on me and that’s some pretty good film. I played pretty well that week, so that’s really good.

“But at the same time,” Merrill added, “I was so confident that I was going to play really well and that we were going to win some games in the NCAA Tournament. I feel like I would have helped myself even more, so I do wish that I would have had that opportunity.”

When the rise of the coronavirus also led to Utah State discontinuing in-person learning, Merrill and his wife, Kanyan, left Cache Valley almost immediately and moved in with his parents, John and Jenny Merrill, in Bountiful. Getting into a weight room was difficult for the first month or so of the quarantine, but Merrill said he was able to play basketball almost every day thanks to his friendship with former teammate Abel Porter, whose parents have a full-size court at their home in Farmington.

As restrictions were slowly lifted, Merrill said he was able to spend more time working out with a personal trainer, as well as having “some really good runs” playing against current and former professional players from around the Salt Lake Valley. But the former Bountiful Brave standout mostly feels good about his body, which is down to 9% body fat and 191 pounds — around 15 pounds below his playing weight at Utah State.

“You’ve got to be in great shape if you want to succeed in the NBA, so I’ve really worked on losing weight, trying to lean out, drop body fat and cut up a little bit,” Merrill said. “And I’ve had success with that.”

On the court, Merrill said that he feels comfortable shooting from NBA 3-point range. He’s tried to extend his range even beyond that, while also improving his ball-handling skills. While he played primarily shooting guard for the Aggies, Merrill also played point guard quite a bit, especially during the latter half of his senior year.

“I always thought my handle was good in college, but I certainly needed some work to be at the level that I wanted to be at,” Merrill said. “So I’ve put a lot of work into that and my handle’s really gotten tighter. I’ve really improved.”

After averaging 20.9 and 19.7 points per game during his last two seasons while shooting 42% from 3-point range for his career, Merrill’s name does show up late in the second round on many mock NBA drafts. And while he wasn’t able to compete in the COVID-friendly NBA combine due to a sprained ankle, Merrill said the ankle is good and he is pretty certain that he will be drafted Wednesday.

“I feel confident,” he declared. “We’ve been hearing good things from teams, so I think it will be a good night. You never know for sure, but I’m pretty confident that it will be an exciting night for me.”

A few weeks after the Lakers finally brought an end to the 2019-20 season by defeating the Heat in the NBA Finals on Oct. 11, the league announced plans to open the 2020-21 season on Dec. 22. That means teams can start their training camps on Dec. 1, just two weeks after the draft, which was postponed several times due to the pandemic.

“I’m really, really excited about that,” Merrill said. “I’m excited to get going. I’m happy about the quick restart because I want to play some basketball.”