In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will be profiled in this space and, in this edition, we examine Utah State guard Sam Merrill.
Before the basketball world (and the sports world) came to a screeching halt in mid-March, Utah State guard Sam Merrill produced one of the more significant highlights of “March Madness.” In the Mountain West Conference title game, Merrill lifted the Aggies to an upset victory over the San Diego State Aztecs, earning Utah State an automatic bid to the 2020 NCAA Tournament that would never take place, and he did so with gusto and a game-winning three-pointer.
While Merrill was well-known in college basketball circles prior to this long-range connection, it is perhaps the most memorable moment of his career on a national scale. As the 2020 NBA Draft approaches, Merrill still isn’t exactly a household name but, as teams search for value in the second round and/or on Two-Way contracts, he is an interesting player to evaluate.
On one hand, Merrill is (much) older than a typical modern draft prospect, as he is set to turn 24 on May 15. While that is far from ideal, Merrill does bring an elite skill to the table and, with the way the NBA game is played in 2020, it happens to match up with what is potentially the most marketable trait that a prospect can offer.
In short, Merrill is a tremendous shooter.
The 6’5, 205-pound guard was a four-year contributor at Utah State, but Merrill took on a more prominent role in his final three seasons. Over that three-year sample, Merrill connected on 41.6 percent of his three-point attempts, with a significant portion of those attempts arriving via self-creation. Beyond his impressive efficiency from beyond the arc, Merrill was also able to post a 53.3 percent mark on two-point attempts, representing a wildly impressive figure for a guard with only modest athleticism.
There is often concern that three-point percentage in college may not translate perfectly to the NBA game and, even if Merrill’s large sample size of effectiveness would overshadow those worries, he also has other strong indicators. For one, Merrill is an elite free throw shooter, burying 89.2 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe over the last three seasons. All told, Merrill posted a ridiculous 63.1 percent true shooting in that sample and, well, there is very little concern about his jump shot translating in any setting.
As noted, Merrill is not simply a pure catch-and-shoot artist, although that appeal will be crucial as he transitions into a smaller offense role professionally. He does have the ability to shoot on the move, both using off-ball movement and on-ball creation, and Merrill isn’t a player that is a pure specialist. In fact, he is a creative player with the ball in his hands and, despite limited burst, Merrill made a significant jump in free throw creation in his last two seasons, attempting 9.2 free throws per 100 possessions.
Though Merrill won’t look explosive compared to some of his contemporaries, he does boast decent size at 6’5 and, though we don’t have full measurements, he plays with reasonable length. In addition to his shooting and overall efficiency as a scorer, Merrill is also a strong passer, producing a career 22.2 percent assist rate and 6.3 assists per 100 possessions in his 132-game career. The former Utah State star also does a fantastic job at taking care of ball, with only a 10.6 percent turnover rate in his career, and only a 9.0 percent rate as a senior.
Offensively, there is significant appeal with Merrill, even when accounting for the smaller spaces that he will be operating in against NBA-level competition. While the sample sizes are small, Merrill also enjoyed success against top-tier college opponents, scoring 24 points (including 10 free throw attempts) against LSU, 21 points against Florida and a 23-point scoring average against a nationally ranked San Diego State team.
It has to be noted that, while Merrill’s offensive potential is relatively clear through the prism of his shooting prowess, there is enough uncertainty elsewhere to push Merrill down many draft boards. Defensively, he is usually in the right place and Merrill is able to execute the scheme. However, he has very modest block and steal rates — 1.7% STL and 0.7% BLK — and, athletically, Merrill will be operating at a deficiency in the NBA world. It is certainly possible that he can hold up as something approaching an average defender but, in short, that would be a best-case scenario kind of outcome, and teams will undoubtedly express skepticism in that translation.
Beyond the defensive and athletic questions, Merrill’s age and mid-major background also won’t help him to assuage doubts. There are encouraging catch-all metrics and Merrill’s shooting is legitimately elite. It seems reasonable to project that Merrill won’t be one of the 30 players selected in the first round but, for teams like the Atlanta Hawks weighing selections in the 50’s, Merrill could be a real option. If not, he should be able to sift through multiple offers for Summer League contracts and/or Two-Way deals, and Merrill is the kind of player that could leverage his one special skill into an NBA career.