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Sam Merrill’s performance “ain’t nothing new” to Cleveland Cavaliers

Merrill’s made the most of his opportunity this past month showing that he deserves a permanent spot in the rotation.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Donovan Mitchell was more combative than normal after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 127-119 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 16.

Mitchell recorded a career-high 13 assists in the win, but most of the questions centered on why his career-high in points and assists both happened without Darius Garland and how the injuries announced the day prior would impact his decision to remain in Cleveland long-term.

Instead of focusing on who wasn’t around, Mitchell turned the conversation to who was.

“I think we have the depth,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s what you’re gonna see during this stretch. You know, I’ve seen a lot of Sam Merrill. I think people don’t understand how talented he is. How cerebral he is and what he knows about the game.”

At that point, Merrill had only played in half of the team’s games and attempted just 37 threes. Since then, he’s taken 116 threes in 13 games while knocking them down at a 43.1% clip.

Mitchell’s words seemed prophetic as Merrill scored 19 points the following game against the Houston Rockets and then a career-high 27 two nights later. The willingness to shoot was the real difference between what came before the Rockets game and what followed.

Merrill is one of the few players who generate more attempts by naturally letting the game unfold. His quick release, combined with his ability to hit movement threes off of screens, give up the ball and relocate and make quick moves to open spaces allow him to take 13.4 three-point attempts per 36 minutes in his last 12 games.

“He’s someone who has a quick memory,” Caris LeVert said. “If he misses one, he’s shooting the next one. It’s tough to guard guys like that.”

Merrill’s 13.8 bench points in the last 13 games have been helpful. But his real skill is how this movement opens up the offense for everyone else.

“It just changes the game,” Mitchell said. “Ultimately, I get looks out of it as well. I get to keep it and get downhill. He changes the game from that standpoint.”

This attention is magnified when he has the ball. The fear of giving up an open three to Merrill causes defenders to panic. His quick decision-making as a passer allows him to use this to create open looks for his teammates.

“Every time he touches the ball it’s either going up or he’s making the right play,” Max Strus said. “He doesn’t hold onto it. The ball doesn’t stop with him and that’s the way we want to play basketball.”

Merrill’s shooting is what gets him on the court. However, how his defense will hold up determines his playing time when this team is fully healthy.

Defensive rating isn’t an individual stat, but it’s a good indicator of how the team performs with someone on the court. On the season, the Cavs have an exceptional 110.7 defensive rating with Merrill on the court. Since Dec. 18 that number has fallen to 105.3.

“The stigma is that he can’t guard anybody, but if you look at it deeply, the kid really guards,” Strus said. “He’s really good defensively. Just smart, always in the right spots and he does a really good job on the ball.”

That is indeed the stigma to the point that even in the G League opponents would try to have their best isolation scorer switch onto him last year. While he held up fine in those situations, his real skill is recognizing how defenses try to pick on him and avoiding those situations entirely.

The below play is a good example of that, as he quickly hedges when the Hawks try to get Trae Young switched onto him. Cleveland ultimately forces a turnover.

Merrill doesn’t overcompensate for his footspeed by giving his opponent too much room on the perimeter. Instead, he stays connected and tries to force his opponent to settle for a midrange jumper, give up the ball, or drive into backside help.

“Defensively, we talk about it with our staff, he’s playing geometry,” head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “He understands angles as well as anybody I’ve seen. He knows how to beat guys to spots and keeps the ball where he wants the ball to be. It’s a compliment to his ability to play the game and be a well-rounded basketball player.”

When fully healthy, the Cavs have more than their fair share of one and two guards on the roster. The value Merrill provides on the offensive end, combined with how he’s held up defensively, should be enough for him to keep a spot in the rotation throughout the remainder of the regular season. None of which is a surprise to one of Merrill’s biggest supporters on the team.

“We’re not surprised by the things that we’re seeing,” Mitchell said. “As a team, we’ve seen it throughout the season, throughout camp. This ain’t nothing new.”