76ers

2020 NBA draft profile: Sam Merrill is a cold-blooded shotmaker

2020 NBA draft profile: Sam Merrill is a cold-blooded shotmaker

Sam Merrill

Position: Guard
Height: 6-5
Weight: 205
School: Utah State

Perhaps the most cold-blooded shotmaker in college basketball this season, Sam Merrill was an offensive monster for Utah State, scoring 2,197 points in four seasons for the Aggies. In his senior season, he averaged 19.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists.

One play doesn’t generally sum up a prospect, but this game-winner against San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament championship game is an excellent example of Merrill’s offensive abilities.


Strengths

Merrill is one of the best shooters in the draft, shooting 42.0 percent from the three-point line and 89.1 percent from the free throw line over his four seasons at Utah State. He has deep range on this three-point shot and can make them in a variety of ways. He has a nice crossover and step-back combo that’s reminiscent of Luka Doncic. He’ll also run around screens and execute dribble-handoffs like JJ Redick. He doesn’t need much room to get his shot off and can make shots with a defender in his face, which makes that 42.0 three-point percentage even more impressive.

He’s not just a shooter, though, which makes him such a tantalizing prospect. Merrill is also an impressive passer and has tremendous potential as a pick-and-roll ball handler because teams will have to honor his three-point shot. When he drives, he generally makes good decisions and gets teammates the ball in optimal scoring positions. He had a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in each of the last two seasons, which is excellent for a player who was the fulcrum of the offense. He’s skilled, he’s heady and he plays in control. He also has good height for an NBA ball handler at 6-foot-5.

Weaknesses

Merrill turned 24 years old in May, so it’s fair to question how much upside he has in the NBA. He’s two years older than most of the other seniors in the draft because he served a Mormon mission in Nicaragua before enrolling at Utah State.

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He’s also not a vertical athlete. Good luck finding any highlight clips of Merrill dunking. There aren’t any. He’s a willing defender and moves his feet OK on the defensive end, but you do have to wonder who Merrill will be able to defend on the NBA level. He’s going to have to really work on his body to have a chance. 

Fit

Merrill’s best NBA situation would be to join a contending team in need of an offensive spark plug off the bench. You may have to hide him on defense and he might end up unplayable on that end of the floor.

The Sixers have two early second-round picks and two more picks in the back half of the second round. If Merrill is still on the board at that point, he’d be worth the minimal risk because he’s so skilled on the offensive end. 

Maybe he ends up being the J.J. Barea of this draft, an incredibly productive college player who succeeds in the NBA despite his athletic limitations. 

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2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

Though they’re calling “seeding games,” the Sixers’ primary concern in the contests leading up to the playoffs is not seeding.

“How do you go into the playoffs … how can you go into that date feeling like we’re the best we can be?” Brett Brown said on July 12. “Worrying too much about moving up because you could play this team or avoid that team, I stay away from that.” 

Through three games at Disney World, Brown wishes the Sixers were playing at a higher level. The team has gone 2-1, but that record includes a fourth quarter in which the Sixers allowed the Pacers to score 46 points, a game-saving shot from Shake Milton vs. the Spurs and a win over the 24-44 Wizards that was tight until the end. Ben Simmons exited Wednesday’s game against Washington early with a left knee injury

It’s been slower coming than I would’ve thought,” Brown said Wednesday. “I liked our practices, I thought … the preseason games you saw at times a dominant defense. We’ve started these three games, I think, very inconsistently. I think we do some good things offensively, defensively, and then you see head-scratching stuff. It hasn’t gone as quickly as I had hoped. But I see where I think it can end. 

“We’re still figuring out some things with how we’re playing the team and Shake (Milton) coming in and so on. But I think, for the most part, we’re trending in the right direction, just not as quickly as I wished.

Here's where the Sixers sit in the Eastern Conference: 

3. Boston Celtics 45-23 GB: 9 
4. Miami Heat 43-25 GB: 11
5. Indiana Pacers 42-26 GB: 12
6. Sixers 41-27 GB: 13 

Boston technically still has a chance to surpass the Raptors for the No. 2 seed and the Sixers aren’t eliminated from contention for the No. 3 seed, but both outcomes are very improbable. Kemba Walker sat out the latter half of a back-to-back Wednesday, a 149-115 Celtics win over the Nets, as the All-Star guard works through a left knee issue. After playing Toronto on Friday night, the Celtics will face Orlando, Memphis and Washington.

The current No. 4 and No. 5 seeds play each other twice in the remaining seeding games, which should be interesting. The Heat’s other opponents are the Bucks, Suns and Thunder, while the Pacers’ are the Suns, Lakers and Rockets. Before the NBA’s hiatus, Miami was 2-0 against Indiana. In case you were curious, T.J. Warren hasn’t dropped off much after his 53-point performance vs. the Sixers. He leads all scorers at Disney World with 39.7 points per game. 

Despite having the sixth-easiest strength of schedule, the Sixers don’t have great odds of rising. Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report gives them a 72.8 percent chance at the No. 6 seed, 23.0 percent at No. 5 and just 4.1 percent at No. 4. Those probabilities are intuitive when you consider the Sixers have lost their season series vs. the Heat and Pacers. 

The Celtics are the Sixers’ most likely first-round opponent at the moment by a good margin, which would potentially leave the Sixers a path of Boston-Toronto-Milwaukee. One could make the argument that such a road is best for the Sixers, since the team won its season series over Boston, 3-1, and wouldn’t have to face the top-seeded Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals, but nothing’s going to be easy for a No. 6 seed. 

We analyzed the Celtics, Heat and Pacers as possible first-round opponents for the Sixers here

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons reportedly had clean MRI on left knee

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons reportedly had clean MRI on left knee

When Ben Simmons flexed his left leg after lobbing a pass for Al Horford and immediately headed off the floor Wednesday during the Sixers’ win over the Wizards, it was logical to be concerned. But, according to a report, Simmons’ knee injury is not as severe as one might have feared watching him walk toward the locker room. 

An MRI on Simmons’ knee was clean and he’s expected to be day-to-day, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. It's worth noting this is not an official update from the Sixers, who Brett Brown said postgame he expected to issue an announcement soon about Simmons' status. 

The 24-year-old recovered from a nerve impingement in his lower back over the NBA’s hiatus, and he felt strong and explosive heading into the league’s restart. He’s now serving as the Sixers’ starting point forward, an adjustment Brown thinks he’s approached well.

“I do feel like Ben has been amazing,” Brown said before Wednesday’s game, “in regards to just being mature on ‘Put me wherever you think I can best help the team.’ At times maybe he hasn’t gotten a touch the way he needs to get a touch, sometimes — which was easier when he was always the primary ball carrier. And so I applaud him tremendously on being a great teammate, trying to accept a new type of ecosystem that we’re trying to use him in.”

Simmons looked for his shot often in Wednesday’s game, though with little success. He missed an open corner three-pointer in the first quarter, his first legitimate regular-season try from long distance since Dec. 7, and made 2 of 10 field goals overall in 23 minutes. 

If Simmons misses any games, Brown will have a few options for reshuffling his starting lineup. There’s a case to be made for just about every member of the current rotation, which Brown cut down to nine players on Wednesday. Al Horford could slide into the frontcourt if Brown wants to work on the Horford-Joel Embiid pairing, which has a plus-15.6 net rating in 40 minutes together at Disney World after being the Sixers’ worst regular duo pre-hiatus.

Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Glenn Robinson III have all started games this year, though Robinson is dealing with an injury himself, having missed the team's first three seeding games with a left hip pointer. Perhaps Brown could go with Alec Burks if he’s looking for an extra ball handler and more time to evaluate his potential backup point guard in the playoffs.

The main takeaway here, however, is not the potential ripple effects on the Sixers' seeding game rotation. Rather, it's that a player the team will surely need to have available in order to make a deep playoff run reportedly has avoided a serious injury.

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