The road back to the NBA for Sam Merrill hasn’t been smooth. His goal has been to take it one day at a time.
“Since the day I got drafted, the next year has never been guaranteed,” he says. “Literally and figuratively. So it’s something I feel like I’m used to.”
That approach has paid off for Merrill as the 26-year-old recently signing a three-year, non-guaranteed deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“You aren’t going to find a better guy than Sam Merrill,” says Cleveland Charge head coach Mike Gerrity, who has coached Merrill for much of this season. “He puts the work in. He’s one of the best pros I’ve seen, as far as just his approach, his work ethic, his habits, his basketball IQ. He’s just a winner. The Cavs found somebody very special.”
“We’ve been watching him all along,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said recently. “We all know that shooting is a premium in this league. But he has the ability to not only make open shots, but create shots. He carries a toughness with himself as well. We watch how hard he works. Those are things that we value.”
Merrill spent his rookie year with the Milwaukee Bucks before being dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies prior to last season. His time in Memphis ended abruptly before it ever really got going.
“It was really difficult because I was in a great spot in Memphis and started to creep in to some rotational minutes,” Merrill said. “Then the ankle injury comes and that was the fourth or fifth bad one in a year. It just wasn’t rehabbing. So we made the decision to get my whole ankle repaired which is a long, long recovery.
“[Memphis] had to let me go. It’s really a cutthroat league. You never know how many opportunities you’re going to get.”
Giving an opportunity to a back-end rotation player coming off ankle surgery and seven months of rehab isn’t something teams were lined up to do. The Sacramento Kings offered him a camp invite, they opted to go another direction.
Forgoing the pursuit of an NBA career in favor of playing internationally is something Merrill says he considered.
“I know sometimes it’s looked down upon over here but it shouldn’t be. It’s high-level basketball,” he says. “It’s a lot of money. I obviously have a lot of pride in who I am as a player, but I wouldn’t say I’m a prideful guy. I just want to play at the highest level.”
“But my agent said that we’re not there yet. ‘You’re too good. You belong at this level. Let’s just go play a little bit show what you can do when you’re healthy.’ I felt like it’d be better just to let people see me play. That was part of the reason that we decided to play G League.”
Charge GM Branden Yu thought Merrill deserved a chance too. It’s why he was selected first overall in the most recent G League Draft.
“He’s a guy we’ve been tracking for a while,” Yu said after Merrill was picked. “Last year unfortunately he got his season cut short by injury in Memphis. We were thinking, this guy is a real NBA player if he gets a chance to show it and stay healthy.”
Merrill was fortunately able to stay healthy and validate Yu’s belief, but he still had to wait five months before earning his call-up.
“There were certainly times throughout the season where I felt like something was gonna happen soon. And then there were times when I felt like something was never going to happen,” Merrill said. “So you just got to learn to stay patient, stay consistent. Understand that. It’s all gonna work out at some point.”
His willingness to stay the course is one of the things Charge assistant coach D.J. Ham respects most about Merrill.
“You go through these things as a G League player where after the Showcase, around January or February, where you’re not getting those call-ups or those 10 days and you start to kind of second guess yourself,” Ham says. “But Sam’s approach to this year was like ‘I’m just going to attack this year like I’m never gonna get a call up. I’m just gonna go out there and put my best foot forward and try to play my best basketball and be a professional.’ He carried that throughout the entire year so it’s fitting that it happened to him.”
The road back has had many ups and downs for Merrill, but he feels this is somewhere he can make an impact.
“I don’t want to say I took my first two years for granted, but going from the NBA to the G League is an adjustment,” Merrill says. “So there’s a level of appreciation to be back. But at the same time, it’s never been about just being here. It’s about proving that I belong. Play real minutes and can be here long-term. And I think I’m in a good spot to show that. So I just got to continue working and and trust the process and know that it’ll all work out at some point.”