With his senior season abruptly coming to an end on an incredible high note, Utah State guard Sam Merrill is preparing for the next step in his basketball career.
Sure, the now-USU graduate would like to have played in the NCAA Tournament after winning the Mountain West Conference tournament. He and his teammates had big plans on making some noise during March Madness, but that is in the past.
Merrill is ready to start writing the next chapter. Playing professionally is most certainly to be included, but where and when is still up in the air.
The Aggie great recently took some time to talk with The Herald Journal. He has been working out and playing the waiting game with sports still shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve been working out, doing interviews and trying to play as much golf as possible,” Merrill said. “... I’ve interviewed with about 25 of the 30 (NBA) teams now through Zoom. That’s been my life right now.”
He has been working out in Utah’s Lindon, Pleasant Grove or at former teammate Abel Porter’s house in Farmington. Merrill’s golf game still needs some work as he joked about still searching for a course that he can play well on.
Shortly after the plug was pulled on collegiate sports, Merrill and his wife Kanyan moved to Bountiful and have been living with his parents. He only had two classes left to graduate and both were online before all classes were forced to go online.
“Being in Bountiful is closer to places where I can work out, and it’s free rent,” Merrill said.
With restrictions being loosened some, Merrill has been able to work out with other athletes. He had been working out by himself or with a single trainer.
“It’s been a little better to get some competition and play with some other guys,” Merrill said. “I’ve been able to play some one-on-one and two-on-two. Last week we even played some five-on-five for the first time. It’s been helpful. Fortunately, (the state of) Utah has done a solid job in handling this and doing the right things.”
The other athletes are a mix of former college and current college players. He has also spent a lot of time with Porter, who recently announced he is transferring to Ohio State for his final year of eligibility.
“I think it is awesome that he is going there,” Merrill said. “He was actually planning on going somewhere else, but it fell through. He was planning on being done and ready to move on and his back was bothering him a little bit, but he got a call with a great opportunity. And even though that fell through, his name was in the (transfer) portal and he decided to play one more year and Ohio State came calling. It’s going to be awesome for him. He is a guy that can help them in a backup point guard role.”
While Merrill enjoys being in his home state and around friends like Porter, he hopes to be able to travel to the Windy City soon.
“At some point, I will go out to Chicago and work out with my agency,” Merrill said. “I don’t know when that is going to be. So right now, it’s just whoever we can get together with.”
Merrill signed with Priority Sports and Entertainment, which is based in Chicago and Sherman Oaks, California. Priority Sports is one of the largest independently owned sports agencies in the U.S.
“They are one of the more successful agencies around,” Merrill said. “They have a pretty big clientele in the NBA. I had multiple connections to Mark Bartelstein, who is the head guy there. (Former Aggie great) Jaycee Carroll is there, so is Justin Hamilton, who is from Utah. He (Bartelstein) is good friends with the Ainge family. Danny (Ainge) and Austin (Ainge) spoke very highly of this agency. They are a group that can open doors because they are one of the more powerful agencies, but they also do things the right way. It was an easy decision for me to join them.”
There has been no clear timetable established as to when the NBA will return. However, it seems like things are starting to move toward a return of the game Merrill loves.
“There has been some positive momentum that there will be workouts and there will be a combine and there will be an NBA season,” Merrill said. “Most people project that the season would be July and August and end in September. The draft would be shortly after that. If that all works out, then workouts would be in late July and August.”
Having grown up in the Beehive State, Merrill was a Utah Jazz fan. At this juncture in his life, he just wants the opportunity and it doesn’t matter where.
“I’m not really in a position to choose,” Merrill said. “I would love to play for any team. At this point, anywhere I could play would be a blessing.”
Merrill, who is the second-leading scorer in USU and Mountain West history with 2,197 points, is confident USU will be fine next season without him, Porter and Diogo Brito. Merrill was also second in career assists at USU with 477 and finished his college career as the school and league record holder in free-throw percentage, converting 89.1% over four years. The two-time conference tournament MVP — also a first in MW history — played more than 4,000 minutes in his career and is the only player over the last 20 years who has scored 20 or more points in six consecutive conference tournament games and led his team to victory in all six games.
“They (Aggies) will be just fine,” Merrill said. “Marco (Anthony) is going to be good, and Sean (Bairstow) is going to improve and be good. You have Rollie (Worster) coming in who is going to be good, and Steve Ashworth who is going to bring some toughness and can really shoot the ball. It’s hard to replace your three main ball handlers, but they will be just fine.”