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Sam Merrill: Rookie Tales

There isn’t another player on the Cavaliers squad this season who’s seen his fortunes turn as sharply as Sam Merrill. 

Early last March, the Wine & Gold inked Merrill – in his third season out of Utah State – to a 10-day deal after appearing in 35 games with the Cleveland Charge, averaging 16.4 points on 44 percent shooting from long-range. He appeared in just five games down the stretch with the parent club the rest of the way – netting a career-best 17 points in the regular season finale against Charlotte.  

All told, the Salt Lake City native had played in a total of 37 career games (two starts) with Cavaliers, Grizzlies and Bucks heading into the 2023-24 season. But Merrill had a stellar Summer League session in Vegas and came into Camp viewing a real opportunity. 

Merrill had some moments early in the campaign, but was still relegated to 13 DNP-CDs through the team’s first 25 games. 

But things changed on December 18 in a home win over Houston. In that game, the 27-year-old went for a career-best 19 points, drilling five three-pointers, including a bomb in overtime that put Cleveland up seven. Two nights later, against the team he grew up rooting for, Merrill went off with 27 points in a home win over the Jazz. 

Merrill has barely looked back from there, and heads into Wednesday’s contest against Milwaukee netting double-figure scoring in five of his last six outings off the bench, canning multiple triples in all six and averaging 12.8ppg on 40 percent shooting from long-range over the stretch. 

When he faces off against the Bucks on Wednesday – with Cleveland looking to run its win streak to six – he’ll take on the team that made him “Mr. Irrelevant” back in 2020, tabbing him with the 60th overall pick back in 2020. And all the Milwaukee Bucks did during his rookie season was win the NBA Championship, coming back to beat the Suns in six games. 

As the Cavs prepare to face his former mates, Merrill sat down with Cavs.com to recall his rookie season – and discuss his recent string of success – in today’s installment of Rookie Tales … 

Before we talk Bucks, how was the journey to France? 

Sam Merrill: I'd never been to Paris. That was really fun. The whole Cavs organization was just phenomenal. We got to bring a plus one, so my wife was out there. They did a great job of taking care of everybody, and they've been like that since I got here. So that was really cool. 

It was a little tough on the body. I’m not sure it's something you love doing during the middle of the season, because of the sleep schedules and whatnot, but hopefully we're over that now.

What’s it been like – going from playing sporadically for most of your time with the Cavs to finding yourself in the rotation? 

Merrill: It's great to have been able to play some – and for the most part play pretty well. 

I feel like I always have confidence, but it's more of a comfort thing now, more of a rhythm thing. There's a lot of stuff that I hadn't really had a chance to do at this level that I've been able to do these last few games. I feel much more comfortable doing certain things, putting the ball on the floor and things like that allow me to kind of be a little more aggressive. 

And again, I've talked about this, but the amount of confidence that these guys have in me – from Coach to the entire team, it's helpful as a shooter and as a guy that knows what he's supposed to do. It's very helpful.

How much easier is it to get in a rhythm now – knowing you’re going to continue getting minutes?

Merrill: You don't feel like you have to do so much in whatever amount of minutes. 

For me, it was proving that I could do it, because there are a lot of shooters that don't always make shots at this level. So, it was first off, proving that I could make shots at a high level, which I feel like I've done. And now, it's just let's just go play, and just try and play good winning basketball.

And obviously for me that means shooting the ball quite a bit, but now I'm not so focused on, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go in and make two or three threes." It's just, "Let's just go play and the rest will figure itself out."

Let's talk about your rookie season with the Bucks. What was draft night like for that year’s Mr. Irrelevant?

Merrill: It was a good night. That was still during COVID, so the optics of having a bunch of people over weren't super-great. 

I had some close friends and family over and we knew that Milwaukee was one of the teams that liked me. I knew Milwaukee had two picks in the Second Round – and they took Jordan Nwora with the first one. And actually, I was pretty sure I was going somewhere else throughout most of the Second Round of that draft. 

And then Milwaukee called and said they were going to take me, so I was really excited. The dream came true!

You mentioned that was the “COVID season” with no fans in the stands for much of the year. What was that like for an NBA rookie?  

Merrill: It was pretty crazy, especially the first few months when most of the arenas didn't have anybody. It was pretty wild. 

Fortunately, I was obviously on the Bucks, so we were able to get crowds in the Playoffs and that was really fun. But even then, they still had things covered up and you couldn't sit, it wasn't a normal bench and you had to wear a mask everywhere. It was a wild season.

That Bucks team was pretty mature. Were there any characters you remember from that season? 

Merrill: It was an older team and the group of the guys that played were all pretty low-key guys. Then we got Jeff Teague though at the end of the season. Jeff Teague's wild, and he's a funny guy. 

And then there was a group of about five or six of us that were not playing, either rookies or two-ways or whatever. And that group, we got really close. Me, Mamadi (Diakite), Jordan Nwora, Justin Jackson, Axel Toupane, Elijah Bryant was there. That was a really good group.

Do you still check out the Ring? 

Merrill: (laughs) Yeah, I check it out every once in a while when I'm home. But I would never wear it anywhere. It’s fun to show off sometimes, but that's not really something you can wear out. 

Was there a vet with that team that you were really close with, or who took you under their wing? 

Merrill: I got pretty close with Pat Connaughton. We're different players, but we would work on the same stuff, and we did a lot of the same stuff where you would screen for Giannis and pop, stuff like that. 

And then we played golf together quite a bit. So he was a really good influence on me. He's a professional. He comes in every day and does his work, which is what I try and do. 

But there were a lot of great guys on that team. Jrue Holiday is one of the best. Giannis and Khris Middleton, they weren't big time talkers, but they showed what needs to be done with their work habits.

Was there any rookie initiation with the Bucks that year? 

Merrill: No, not for us. Coach Bud, he was not into hazing rookies. We had some little duties – coffee, donuts for the vets – but we didn't really have to do anything.

Having won an NBA Championship with that team, do you see elements of a team that win a title here in Cleveland? 

Merrill: For sure. 

I think one thing I learned that year was that really good teams do a great job of not overreacting. We went down 2-0 to Brooklyn in the Second Round, and we got killed both games. And in my mind, I was like, ‘Oh, I think we're done. It's going to be hard to win four out of five against this team with the way they're playing.’ And there was just no overreaction at all. Same thing in the Finals. We got down 2-0 to Phoenix who was playing incredible basketball, same thing. 

And we've had that here (with the Cavs) where we didn't get off to a great start and had a couple losses that we didn't love, but there's no overreaction. There's just, it's a long season – let's do what we need to do to get better, obviously, but understand that we have the talent in here to do something special.