With shooting now a valued commodity, Utah State’s Sam Merrill could be a steal in 2020 NBA Draft

Sam Merrill watched, probably with more of a vested interest even than lifetime fans of the Heat and Lakers, how the 2020 NBA playoffs ultimately tapered down to those two teams.

Did you know that there were 1,980 3-pointers made in the postseason? Did it seem, frankly, that there were more? Did you know that the teams in the NBA Finals each attempted at least 34 threes per game and converted better than 35 percent?

If Merrill’s shooting touch were a stock — and that’s how NBA Draft analysts treat such qualities — it would have risen in value every day the playoffs continued.

And as the 2020 NBA Draft approaches Wednesday, it would appear still to have great worth.

“The value of shooting is as high as it’s ever been,” Merrill told Sporting News. “You need guys that can stretch the floor and open things up for your stars. That’s one thing that hopefully would give me an opportunity.”

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Merrill is a shooter. There is zero debate about that. In four seasons at Utah State, he connected on 319 3-pointers and 42 percent of his attempts. The last act of his college career, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports across the world, was to nail a deep, off-the-dribble 3-pointer over tight defense from San Diego State to break a tie score and secure the 2020 Mountain West Conference tournament title.

“He definitely can shoot it with the best of them,” Matthew Maurer of the The Draft Review told Sporting News.

If all this were about shooting, and shooting only, they’d be talking about Merrill as a likely lottery pick. There is more to basketball, of course, and that is what complicates his journey to the NBA. Is he dynamic enough? Can he defend at that level? Can he create his own shot? Did we mention: Can he defend at that level?

“There’s certainly some truth to it, in the aspect that I don’t run super fast and I don’t jump super high. But I do think that … I’m a lot quicker than people think, both laterally and with the ball in my hands,” Merrill said. “I feel like I have the ability to go by guys, and I can stay in front of guys.

“I feel like athleticism isn’t simply running and jumping. I think there’s more to it. I think it’s movement. There’s fluidness as a mover, and as a finisher around the rim, and as a rebounder there’s toughness. I do think I have the ability to compete with the best athletes.”

In the 2020 Finals, Danny Green of the Lakers and Duncan Robinson of the Heat showed that it’s possible to overcome suspect “measurables” with a simple flick of the wrist.

Green is 13th all time in playoff 3-pointers, though he was a mid-second round pick and didn’t become a full-time player at the NBA level until his third year out of college. He has won championships with the Spurs, Raptors and Lakers while shooting a combined 113-of-335 (.397) from long distance in those three postseasons.

Robinson was undrafted out of Michigan after playing for a Final Four team in 2018, but he averaged 13.5 points in 30 minutes per game for the 2019-20 Heat, hitting .446 from deep. His 3-point percentage ranked fourth in the league, and first (by far) among the eight players who made at least 200 threes.

Robinson was 24 when he entered the league. Green was 24 when he got his first regular playing time. This is germane to Merrill’s case because he served a Mormon mission before starting his Utah State career, and so he will start his first NBA training camp at 24, as well.

“Guys don’t hit their physical or, really, talent prime until — what? — 27 years old. I think there’s still an opportunity for me to get better,” Merrill said. “I improved every year over my four years at Utah State, and that’s under a college system where the development probably isn’t quite as high as it would be under an NBA system. I certainly feel like there’s more room for me to improve in certain areas: with my handle, with my shot-making ability off the dribble. I think I can still get more athletic.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of guys that are older — their maturity and their big-game experience throughout college has gone on to help NBA teams.”

It has been a most unusual year to be an NBA Draft prospect. There was no NCAA Tournament to make one final case about one’s ability to perform under extreme pressure. The combine that typically brings all the top prospects to a central location in Chicago was conducted virtually. There was no summer league during which prospects could assure teams that they’d made the right draft picks or undrafted players could assert: You missed on me, but you can make up for it by signing me now.

With European pro leagues starting up in the fall, while the NBA was concluding its 2019-20 season, many prospects had to make a decision about whether to defer their NBA dreams for a year and pick up a full year’s paycheck overseas.

In between, players had to find ways to keep in shape and to work on improving with access to gyms often challenging. Merrill’s Utah State teammate and close friend, Abel Porter, had a court available, so he was able to get up shots whenever he wanted. But as for physical training? “I don’t think I lifted for like a month,” Merrill said. “I just did body weight stuff at my house.”

If selected on Wednesday, Merrill will be the first Utah State player to be chosen since 6-7 Greg Grant was chosen by the Pistons in the 1986 sixth round. No one who’s completed his career with the Aggies enjoyed an extended NBA career since Nate Williams joined the Cincinnati Royals — now the Sacramento Kings — in 1971.

“I really felt like I was going to be able to help myself not only in summer league, but in individual team workouts,” Merrill said. “It’s unfortunate, but this time has forced teams to do deeper dives into my film — and not just my film, but everybody’s film — and I think that helps me. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t wallow. I’m just focused on trying to be the best I can be. And, whenever I get the opportunity, hopefully make the best of it.”

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