It’s been an interesting offseason for Aggie guard Sam Merrill.
He didn’t take much of a break from working out and improving his game, but did take a little time off to attend the wedding of his teammate Abel Porter in Hawaii in May with his wife, and former teammate Crew Ainge and his wife. The reigning Player of the Year in the Mountain West has also been dealing with a few ankle issues, but that hasn’t slowed him down much.
For instance, last weekend he was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, attending the CP3 Elite Guard Camp. Merrill was one of just 15 collegiate guards invited to the three-day camp hosted by NBA player Chris Paul.
“There wasn’t anything earth shattering that I learned,” Merrill said early this week. “It was big for me from a confidence standpoint. People at that level have said they will have to see if I can guard. I was a little nervous going into the camp. I knew I could score. I was anxious to see how I would defend.”
So, how did it go defensively for the Aggie who averaged a team-best 20.9 points and 4.2 assists a game last season?
“I thought I did a really, really good job,” Merrill said. “I gained confidence over the week. Guys were trying to go at me at first just because ... I was the only player of my physique there. Guys were trying to go at me at the beginning, but by the end of the week that wasn’t happening. I gained a lot of confidence on that end. I know I’m a good defender.”
USU head coach Craig Smith has tooted that horn as well, calling Merrill one of the best defenders on the team. The soon-to-be senior has drawn the assignment of guarding opposing team’s best scorers.
Merrill credited Smith with helping him get into the CP3 camp. Originally, the Bountiful native was going to declare for the NBA draft like his teammate Neemias Queta did. However, he said some “good advice from high-level people” helped him decide to try and get into an elite camp instead.
“The camp was a good experience, so they were right,” Merrill said of those he talked to. “... There were a ton of NBA scouts there, I would guess from almost every team.”
The camp was last Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Each day there were two sessions.
“We just played a lot,” Merrill said. “... The first session would be skill work, lots of shooting. It was all focused on the NBA game, so NBA ball screens, dribble hand-off, stuff like that. The second session we would play fives (five on five).
“It was a different game because it was all guards. Lots of one-on-one stuff. I can score one-on-one, but I’m not going to blow by a lot of guys. I decided early on, I didn’t have a lot of respect from the other guys there, don’t think they knew who I was. But I decided from the first day that I was going to shoot the ball well — every team needs people who can shoot — and show my high IQ and play good defense. I’m not sure scouts at the next level know that I can defend. I had a good week and shot the ball really well. I thought it was a good experience to play against really good athletes and to show what I can do in front of scouts.”
How was Chris Paul?
“We had a couple of film sessions where the guys running the camp would show clips of him and give us feedback on what he was looking at, how he is successful,” Merrill said. “He talked to us about NBA life and how to spend your money. He played with us. He was fun to watch. I never had a chance to guard him, but he scored every time he touched the ball.”
With the camp being just three days, there was not a lot of time to make new friends. Merrill did notice the mid-major tended to stick together, as did the big conference athlete.
Smith has said that once the 2018-19 season came to an end at the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, he told the players to take two weeks off. Less than a week later, Merrill and Diogo Brito were seen in the gym working out.
“We have a hungry group of guys that realize we had a good year last year,” Merrill said. “In some ways, we didn’t get where we wanted to. We wanted to accomplish more. From the beginning of the season we said, ‘let’s go win the league, go win the tournament and go win in the NCAA Tournament.’ We didn’t quite get all three of those. The guys that are returning have a good understanding of what we want to accomplish.”
A year ago Merrill focused on nutrition, dropped a little weight and got into much better shape. This summer he has worked on many areas of his game.
“I think I’ve done a really good job in the weight room, I’ve gotten stronger,” Merrill said. “... As far as my game, I’ve been working on becoming an even better ball handler and shotmaker. In my position, I have to make a lot of off-balance shots, end-of-clock shots, deep contested shots. ... It’s been a good summer so far.”
While college basketball is still months away, expectations are going to be sky high for the Aggies after they won a share of the Mountain West regular season title and then captured the tournament title. USU was an eighth seed at the Big Dance, the school’s best seed ever. The Aggies return four starters and arguably one of the best sixth men in the league in Brito.
“We bring mostly everyone back, but Quinn (Taylor) and Dwayne (Brown Jr.) are big losses,” Merrill said. “Our new guys have done a good job up to this point. Everyone talks about pressure and can they handle having the target on their back and having everyone coming after them. We felt that early on in conference play last year. Once we got off to that fast start, we feel teams were gunning for us. Coach Smith and us as players do a really good job of just trying to be the same every single day.
“Our effort and energy is very similar to last year. We are not focused on what people are saying but trying to improve daily. Hopefully, we can be at our best by March.”
The Aggies will be much taller this upcoming season, and getting Queta to return was huge.
“I’m the second shortest guy on the team, and Abel (Porter) is the shortest at 6-3,” Merrill said. “It was good to get Neemi (Queta) back. I was going to be real happy for him either way. Utah State needs a guy or two in the NBA draft. It’s been a long time.”
Merrill praised Porter for his leadership once he became a starter. He said the point guard has gained confidence, but feels all of the returners will be better in 2019-20.
“Everyone coming back, Diogo (Brito), myself, Abel (Porter), Justin (Bean), Brock (MIller) and Neemi (Queta) is a good core group,” Merrill said. “There is talent there and obviously some good guys.”