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Utah State guard Sam Merrill (Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images)
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Utah State Guard Sam Merrill Is Ready For The NBA Draft

Utah State guard Sam Merrill (Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Sam Merrill is anxiously preparing for the NBA Draft. The Utah State guard joined the KSL Sports Front Page and the Jazz Notes podcast to discuss his preparation for next week’s draft and what he’s heard from teams throughout the process.

Merrill was a star at Utah State and has been a popular name in the second round of several mock drafts. The senior is one of the best shooters in the draft and is expected to be one of the more NBA ready rookies when training camps open in early December.

You can watch the interview in the video below, or download and listen to the podcast in the podcast app.

Leaving Utah State

Merrill ended his college career in dramatic fashion, hitting a game-winning three-point shot against San Diego State to win the Mountain West Conference Tournament and secure Utah State’s spot in the ill-fated NCAA Tournament.

“That was the funnest basketball game I’ve ever played in,” Merrill said of the Tournament Championship game. “And playing against a great San Diego State team and Malichi (Flynn) and all kinds of very good players. (Flynn) had won Player of the Year and deservedly so, but I took that matchup personally. And we had developed a little bit of a rivalry with San Diego State over the past couple of years. So it was a ton of fun and just two teams throwing haymakers at each other, and fortunately, we were able to come out on top.”

However, just days after Merrill and the Aggies won the conference tournament, the basketball postseason was canceled, and his attention turned to preparing for the NBA Draft.

“After four years at Utah State, in the back of my mind thinking about the next step and what that was going to be,” Merrill said. “So when that (the NCAA tournament was canceled), there was a day or two of sadness and disappointment. But from then on, I was just focused on what my next goal was going to be. And I was trying to get drafted and make the NBA.”

Preparing for the Draft

Unlike most seasons when draft prospects travel from team to team to hold workouts, players have been forced to remain in their host cities while NBA teams send their talent evaluators on the road to analyze a prospect.

Merrill said that no teams have traveled to see him during the predraft process, but that shouldn’t come as a major surprise considering his projection as a second-rounder as NBA teams are allowed just 10 in-person workouts during the pre-draft process due to the coronavirus pandemic. With four years of game film at Utah State under his belt, Merrill isn’t a player teams’ will have as many questions about heading into the draft.

Despite not working out for any teams in person, the senior guard said he was anxious to show off the improvements to his body he has made since leaving college.

“My body was never in a perfect spot at college,” Merrill said. “I always felt okay, I always felt like I was in good shape, But as soon as I finished, everyone was told me ‘You’ve got to lose weight, you’ve got to drop body fat, you got to be in great shape.’ So that’s been the number one focus for me.”

During a traditional NBA offseason, a player would get drafted in late June and have two weeks to prepare for the Las Vegas Summer League. Afterward, the player would have an additional two months to prepare for training camp. However, with the truncated offseason, Merrill will find his future team on draft night and report to camp two weeks later. As a result, he’s focused on getting his body ready for the season.

Merrill’s original offseason goals didn’t go according to plan. The guard said he suffered a minor ankle injury just before the draft combine which limited his ability to create a workout video for teams. However, he hopes to have the opportunity to get his predraft footage distributed to teams this week showing off the improvement in his body.

“I’ve lost 10 pounds, and I’m down to under 10 percent (body fat),” Merrill said. “So I feel really good. And hopefully, it’s going to be quick, the draft comes next week. And training camp is basically a week and a half after. So I feel like I’m ready. And hopefully, I’ll be in good enough shape to be successful.”

Merrill’s NBA Draft Stock

Though many players during the pre-draft process claim they don’t pay much attention to mock drafts or draft order, Merrill admitted he had a good feel for where teams could draft him. Surprisingly, the guard said much of his interest has come from teams that don’t own a pick in his projected range.

“The teams that I think are most interested right now don’t even have second-round picks,” Merrill said. “But they’ve made it clear that they think they’re going to move into the second round.”

Currently, the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Lakers will enter draft night without a second-round pick.

Due to Merrill’s universally translatable game, every team in the NBA could make an argument for needing the guard’s elite level shooting. However, teams with championship aspirations that will find themselves in tight salary cap situations could make particular sense for Merrill, capitalizing on his NBA ready game.

In the second round, those teams would be Bucks, Rockets, Nuggets, and Lakers.

If Merrill hopes to hear his name drafted at the end of the first round, one potential suitor could be the Boston Celtics. Boston has three first-round draft selections at their disposal (14, 26, 30) which could allow them the opportunity to use their early pick on a higher upside player, and then use their late first-round selections on players who are more ready to contribute right away.

It doesn’t hurt that Merrill is a friend of Crew Ainge, a former Utah state guard, and the son of Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge. Like Merrill, Ainge was a star at a smaller basketball school in Utah (BYU) who carved out a long career in the NBA.

Finding Success in the NBA

Projected to enter the NBA without a guaranteed first-round contract, Merrill said he’s more focused on being ready for training camp than he is his landing spot on November 18. Players projected to go early in the second round often all out of the draft completely, though that isn’t necessarily a death-knell for NBA hopefuls.

“Do I want to get drafted? Yeah, of course, that would be great to hear my name called,” Merrill said. “But at the end of the day, so many guys have been drafted and haven’t made it to a second contract. And a lot of guys either have been drafted late in the second round or aren’t drafted at all and have carved out a career.”

Without the luxury of the Summer League, Merrill understands that his future will reflect the work he’s willing to put in to make it in the NBA.

“Whatever happens next week, or in the next couple months, I believe in myself and what I can accomplish,” The senior guard said. “And if I stick to it and work really hard, it may be in year one, or maybe in year four, but I believe that if I keep the right mindset, I’ll be able to have success.”

As for draft night itself, Merill said he will watch the draft with his family, but isn’t looking to steal the broadcast spotlight during the second round.

“I’ll just be here at home with my family,” Merrill said. “I may invite a couple of people over depending on my confidence level. I’m pretty confident but we’ll see. Obviously, COVID has gotten bad here. So you have to be careful with that type of stuff. The league offered to send out a camera or whatever but I respectfully declined. I’m good with that. We’ll just be hanging out here and hoping that it’s going to be a good night.”

You can subscribe to the Jazz Notes podcast in the podcast app and have every episode delivered directly to your phone. 

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