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These two Milwaukee Bucks rookies from Utah universities had a front-row seat to the NBA Finals

Ahead of Tuesday’s championship-deciding Game 6, the former Utah State and BYU stars reflected both on the past months with the Milwaukee Bucks and on what’s ahead for them.

(Photo courtesy of Nick Monroe | Milwaukee Bucks) Former BYU guard Elijah Bryant, left, and Utah State guard Sam Merrill are rookies this season with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks.

On May 4, Elijah Bryant played his final game for Maccabi Tel Aviv, scoring 15 points in 21 minutes in an Israeli Super League victory over Hapoel Haifa. Nine days later, he signed a two-year, $1.5 million deal with the Milwaukee Bucks.

And on Tuesday night, after the Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the former BYU guard became an NBA champion.

“It’s definitely been like, ‘What is going on?’” Bryant told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday evening.

It’s a question simultaneously hyperbolic and yet wholly appropriate.

Bryant is one of two former Beehive State collegians on Milwaukee’s roster this season, along with ex-Utah State standout Sam Merrill, the 60th and final selection in the 2020 NBA Draft who joined an already-loaded Bucks roster by virtue of the team selecting him with a pick acquired as part of the four-team trade that allowed them to bring in Jrue Holiday.

In his final two seasons at USU, as the unquestioned star of the Aggies program, Merrill averaged 35.2 minutes, 13.7 shots, and 20.3 points per game. This year, in a rookie campaign with Milwaukee that’s been far from normal, he appeared in just 30 of 72 regular-season games, and averaged 7.8 minutes, 2.4 shots, and 3.0 points per game.

And yet …

“It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a great experience for me,” Merrill told The Tribune on Monday morning. “It’s been unlike anything I’ve ever been through.”

The Bucks were, after all, at the time, just one day away from claiming the franchise’s first championship since 1971, back when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still known as Lew Alcindor.

Granted, neither player had much of a hand in the ultimate outcome. Bryant, after appearing in just one regular-season game, scored 14 combined points in 11 playoff appearances totaling 49 minutes this postseason. Merrill managed just five points in eight playoff games over a span of 29 minutes played.

And they barely set foot on the court in the Finals, appearing in one game apiece — Merrill for 1:18 of Milwaukee’s 120-100 Game 3 victory, and Bryant all of 17 seconds in the Bucks’ 118-108 Game 2 loss.

Which is not to say the Finals experience wasn’t impactful for them.

“You have to stay prepared, because you never know if a couple of guys are going to go down, especially this year. Who knows if a couple of guys get COVID or whatever may happen,” Merrill said. “For us young guys, the team’s not really practicing, but we’re obviously working really hard. We’re scrimmaging a whole lot, we’re lifting every day, conditioning and all that stuff. So there’s a fine line of focusing on my development and getting better while also trying to stay ready just in case your number is called — you don’t want to be completely gassed from a workout or whatever.”

Bryant, meanwhile, was simply trying to soak up the mentality of quiet confidence that his veteran teammates exuded. This postseason, he explained, has been something of a master class in not overreacting to bad moments or stretches, and trusting in their capacity to bounce back.

“It’s been really cool just to see how well these guys take one possession at a time, or one day at a time, one game at a time,” Bryant said. “You look at the Brooklyn series — down 0-2, no one stressed. I’m thinking, ‘Oh shoot.’ Being a rookie, I’m thinking, ‘Down 0-2, it’s going to be hard to win,’ but these guys are seasoned vets, they understand it’s hard to win playoff games, especially on the road.

“… [Coach Mike Budenholzer] always says, ‘Don’t believe ‘em when they’re saying you’re good, and don’t listen to ‘em when they’re saying you’re bad,’” he continued. “You’ve got to keep that even keel — that’s one thing that I’ve really appreciated and learned from these veterans here.”

Both players have been trying to balance multiple goals — remaining ready to go, while also trying to add to their respective toolboxes ahead of the coming Las Vegas Summer League.

Merrill, a 6-foot-4 native of Bountiful, has been working all season to dramatically alter his physical conditioning, noting how “coming in, it was a bit of … not a reality check, but the thing that stood out to me the most when I first got here was just how strong everybody is.” Bryant, meanwhile, as a 26-year-old combo guard who departed the Cougars in 2018, doesn’t figure he’s going to make any seismic leaps athletically at this point, and so is devoting himself to being better at reading the court: “You have a lot of guys in the NBA who are super-athletic but don’t understand the game as well.”

That’s up next, though. In the here and now, there’s a bit of celebrating to do following the franchise’s first championship in half a century. Merrill had noted the difficulty of the players remaining hyper-focused on the task at hand while the city of Milwaukee was buzzing with anticipation ahead of Tuesday’s Game 6. Now, they finally can relax a bit.

Bryant, meanwhile, at the tail end of a chaotic two-month indoctrination into the highest level of professional basketball, conceded he hasn’t had too many spare moments to simply reflect on his unexpected journey. That will change, though, with the Larry O’Brien trophy now in hand.

“Going from Elon to BYU, BYU to a small team in Israel, from a small team in Israel to Maccabi, you see what it takes, so you have to stay the course,” he said. “… There’s so much going on — I’m trying to plan for Summer League, I’m trying to plan where I’m going after, there’s so much going on that I haven’t really had time.

“… But I guarantee after Summer League, it’ll really hit me — ‘Dude, you won a championship.’”

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