During a practice in mid-October, the Utah State men’s basketball team ran through a shooting drill where players saw how many 3-pointers they could make in two and a half minutes. In the first run-through, junior guard Sam Merrill knocked down 32.
First-year coach Craig Smith asked each of his players to say how many shots they made.
“Sam!” he yelled, asking for Merrill’s total.
“Thirty-two,” Merrill replied despondently.
“Forty-two?” Smith inquired playfully, knowing it would get under Merrill’s skin.
“No, 32,” Merrill repeated.
The next round came and went in another 21/2 minutes. This time, Smith called on Merrill last. The 6-foot-5 Utah native made a beeline toward Smith to share his updated number of makes.
“Forty-six!” Merrill yelled proudly.
Smith could hardly believe it. “Forty-six? How many did you shoot?”
“I missed three,” Merrill said.
The Aggies have thrived off Merrill’s competitive nature all season. He leads the team in scoring (19.4), assists (4.4) and steals (1.2) per game. He takes charges. He dives for loose balls. He defends the opposing team’s best perimeter player. He’ll even block the occasional shot.
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Merrill’s fiery demeanor may not even be his most important, and most infectious, trait.
“Sam is probably the hardest worker on the team,” said sophomore Abel Porter, who has known and played with Merrill since the two were 10 years old. “And I think when your best player is your hardest worker, that's just going to set the tone for your team on offense and defense.”
“Competitive.” “Hard worker.” “Big-time winner.” Those are just a few of the ways Merrill’s teammates describe him, but the first phrases that come to mind when asked about him. Senior Dwayne Brown Jr. recalled a time last season when someone made a shot over Merrill’s defense. He was so upset he didn’t stop the player from scoring that he grabbed the ball and kicked it away in anger.
“It shows the passion behind … every little thing, when it comes to basketball, that he wants to be,” Brown said. “He wants to be on top.”
Merrill grew up in Bountiful and attended the high school of the same name, where he played basketball for the Braves. He started with football early in life, but realized in junior high that he was better at basketball and could get further with it.
Even in high school, Merrill displayed his borderline-obsessive will to win. In a semifinal playoff game during his junior year, Porter recalled, Merrill’s teammates were struggling to score. So Merrill put them on his back and poured in nearly 40 points in a losing effort on a buzzer-beater. For Porter, it’s the ultimate example of his friend’s competitiveness and character, as well as his contempt for losing.
“Even after he had done probably every single thing could have to win that game,” Porter said, “he was still just so devastated.”
Although Merrill has exhibited that drive for much of playing career, he hasn’t always been the dynamic player Aggies fans watch on a nightly basis, particularly in regard to his shooting stroke. Merrill remembers being a “pass-first” and “inside-the-paint” player in his high school years, and said his efficient shooting came along later.
After returning from his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Merrill decided to tweak his shooting form. He looked at how wide Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors spread his feet when he shot, and incorporated that into his game. He also added more arc to his shots. Those changes have helped him become the 38.3 percent 3-point shooter that he is now, he said.
The other thing that makes Merrill such a threat with a basketball? His teammates allow him to take high-percentage shots.
“I feel like we have enough weapons where I can kind of pick and choose and try and get shots that I'm comfortable with and try and get open looks,” Merrill said.
Merrill’s offensive prowess is certainly the flashiest part of his game, but it’s his passing that cements the Aggies together. Brown said he’s the best distributor on the team. Porter called him “an unselfish player, almost to a fault sometimes.” When he gives up open shots to pass to a teammate, Smith believes he’s bringing the team closer together.
“You can see now, guys on our team playing the best basketball of their career,” Smith said. “I think that a lot of that is just Sam's willingness to lead, willingness to communicate to them, willingness to trust them in those kinds of situations. I think he gives guys confidence in themselves.”
When Merrill isn’t playing basketball, he’s most likely watching it with his teammates or family and friends. He describes himself as a huge Utah Jazz fan, and gets just as upset when they lose as when his team does, or when he loses a competitive drill in practice.
But other than that, Merrill said, he’s “a pretty boring guy.” Smith agreed, and senior Quinn Taylor said a better descriptor for him is that of a “homebody.”
When he steps on the court, however, Merrill’s main objective is to usurp all who stand in his way and in the way of his team. He said his goal when he arrived to Utah State was to make the NCAA tournament and to win an NCAA Tournament game.
His approach to every aspect of basketball, and his entire life for that matter, may be what leads the Aggies there.
“For us to be as successful as we can as a team, we have to give it our all at all times,” Taylor said. “If he’s expecting that from other players, he’s gonna be the first to do it.”
ABOUT SAM MERRILL
Hometown: Bountiful, Utah
High School: Bountiful High
Stats: 19.4 points, 3.7 rebounds. 4.4 assits, 1.2 steals
In the Mountain West: Ranks second in scoring, first in free throw percentage
Favorite basketball team: Utah Jazz