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Former USU star Sam Merrill excited to help Milwaukee Bucks ‘win a championship’

Utah State’s Sam Merrill plays against San Diego State during an NCAA college basketball game for the Mountain West Conference men’s tournament championship Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas.
Isaac Brekken, Associated Press

Even as the 2020 NBA draft wound down Wednesday night, Sam Merrill behaved like Sam Merrill: calm, cool and collected, and confident that he would come through in the clutch.

Then again, the former Utah State and Bountiful High star did have the luxury of some inside knowledge that those watching ESPN’s broadcast of the draft simply did not.

After some back-and-forth with his agent around the time the 52nd and 53rd picks of the second round were announced, Merrill agreed to a contract with the Milwaukee Bucks, so by the time the 60th and final selection was revealed around 10:15 p.m. MST, Merrill, his family and a couple of friends were already comfortable in the knowledge that he was going to be the first Aggie basketball player drafted into the NBA in 34 years.

“Personally, I didn’t care at all,” Merrill said with a laugh after being asked if it seemed like an excruciatingly long period of the time between the 59th pick and the last selection of the night thanks to a long string of commercials.

“But it was cool to hear my named called,” he added. “That was certainly cool.”

It was Deputy NBA Commissioner Mark Tatum who announced Merrill’s name, wrapping up the virtual event from the ESPN Campus in Bristol, Connecticut, by declaring: “With the 60th pick in the 2020 NBA draft, the New Orleans Pelicans select Sam Merrill from Utah State University. Thank you and have a great night.”

While Merrill was selected with the Pelicans’ pick, New Orleans and Milwaukee agreed to a trade on Tuesday that will send New Orleans guard Jrue Holiday to the Bucks, along with Merrill’s rights. Once the deal is approved by the NBA, Merrill will be able to sign a contract with Milwaukee.

According to Merrill, the deal with the Bucks is for essentially for two years, with one fully guaranteed and the second partially guaranteed. The Athletic’s Tony Jones reported Wednesday night that the deal is worth $1.4 million in guaranteed money.

“There’s not a lot of guys in the second round who got that kind of a deal, so I’m real excited and grateful that I’m going to a good organization,” Merrill said. “I know the Bucks are making some changes, and I’m not sure what’s official and what’s not, but they’ve got one of the best players in the league in Giannis (Antetokounmpo), and Khris Middleton, who is a star as well.

“They’re a team that’s contending for a title. That’s what their goal is going to be, so I’m excited to join that. Hopefully I’ll get an opportunity to try and earn some minutes, but more than anything I want to help that team win a championship.”

Led by Antetokounmpo, the 6-foot-11 forward known as the “Greek Freak,” the Bucks have finished at the top of the Eastern Conference the past two seasons under head coach Mike Budenholzer.

Milwaukee went 60-22 in 2018-19 before falling to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals and 56-17 in a 2019-20 season shortened by the pandemic but was upset by the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals.

Antetokounmpo was the NBA MVP in each of the past two years, but he is set to become a free agent following the 2020-21 season.

“They have a great system that obviously revolves around Giannis and what he does,” Merrill noted, “and they need shooters, so I think that’s why they targeted me and Jordan Nwora, who was their other second-round pick (45th overall). We are two of the best shooters in the draft this year, so hopefully we’re two guys that can help out.”

That declaration was backed up by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas moments after Merrill’s selection was announced.

“He can really shoot it,” Bilas said, “and just another guy that knows how to play. Mountain West Player of the Year, two-time tourney MVP, 41% from three, over 90% from the free-throw line. Has size as a two-guard, about 6-5, and a good player.”

Merrill is the first Aggie to be selected in the NBA draft since Greg Grant was picked in the sixth round of the 1986 draft by the Detroit Pistons. The 6-foot-5 Merrill is also poised to become the first USU player to see action in an NBA game since Desmond Penigar played on a 10-day contract with the Orlando Magic in 2004.

Although Merrill went into Wednesday’s draft very confident that he would be selected, he said that early in the second round, he started thinking that wasn’t going to happen.

“There were a ton of conversations going on throughout the entire draft that my agents were handling, and I got a call at about pick 40 that a team had offered me a good contract if I didn’t get drafted,” Merrill said. “And most of the teams in the second round were offering two-way deals to the guys they drafted. So we were going to accept that deal if we didn’t get the same deal or better.

“I was totally OK with not being taken,” he added. “But later on, my agent called back and said, ‘Hey, Milwaukee is going to match that deal and they’re going to draft you,’ so that was exciting.”

Before becoming the second-leading scorer in the history of USU basketball, Merrill led the Bountiful Braves to the 4A state title in 2014 before leaving to serve a mission in Nicaragua for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He originally committed to play for former Aggie coach Stew Morrill, who retired while Merrill was gone, and he ended up playing for Tim Duryea for two seasons before Duryea was replaced by Craig Smith prior to Merrill’s junior season.

The 2019 Mountain West Player of the Year, Merrill was also the MVP of the league’s postseason tournament the past two seasons and capped off his extraordinary career by burying the game-winning 3-pointer in USU’s upset of No. 5 San Diego State in the championship game of the 2020 MW tournament.

Merrill was one of a record-tying four Mountain West players to be selected in this year’s draft. San Diego State guard and 2020 MW Player of the Year Malachi Flynn went to the Raptors at No. 29, while Boise State’s Justinian Jessup went to the Golden State Warriors at No. 51 and Nevada’s Jalen Harris was picked one position ahead of Merrill by the Raptors.

After the draft, Merrill said he received numerous texts and calls congratulating him, including a text from Koby McEwen. Merrill’s backcourt mate during their freshmen and sophomore years, McEwen ended up transferring to Marquette, and is gearing up right now to play his senior season in Milwaukee.

“That will be cool to see Koby. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him,” said Merrill, who added that he hadn’t yet made contact with former Aggie quarterback Jordan Love, who was a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in this year’s NFL draft.

But Merrill said he had talked to former teammate Jalen Moore, who signed a free-agent contract with the Bucks back in 2017 but ended up not going to Milwaukee that fall due to anxiety issues that increased after his collegiate career came to an end.

“Jalen loves that organization,” Merrill said of the Bucks. “He said that it’s a great place to be.”

Merrill, who is married to former USU soccer player Kanyan Ward, wasn’t certain when he’ll go to Wisconsin, but the NBA recently announced that training camps will open on Dec. 1. Games for what is currently scheduled to be a 72-game season will start on Dec. 22.

One person who expects big things from the former Aggie in the NBA is Tarvish Felton, an assistant coach under Duryea who coached Merrill for two years before becoming the associate head coach at Fresno State.

Felton wrote of Merrill on Twitter: “So happy for you @smerrill05!! You were an absolute joy to coach and a nightmare to prepare for and play against!! Congratulations!! So very proud of you!! They have no idea what they are in for, but they are about to find out!!”