Cleveland Cavaliers’ Sam Merrill (5) shoots as San Antonio Spurs’ Malaki Branham (22) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Cleveland, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Phil Long)
Sam Merrill is becoming a menace to opposing NBA teams.
The former Utah State star just had another career night in which he made eight 3-pointers and scored 26 points on behalf of the Cleveland Cavaliers in its win over the Orland Magic. It’s Merrill’s second game this season with at least eight 3-pointers (he’s one of just six players in the league to have multiple such games) and the latest great performance in a 14-game stretch where Merrill’s averaged 13.5 points per game coming off the bench.
What’s propelling Merrill from his relatively unknown status the last couple of years is the thing everyone in the NBA has known he can do since 2020: take and make a lot 3-point shots. But Merrill isn’t a just a stationary shooter that will hit wide-open threes when kicked out to (though he can very much do that as he ranks sixth in the NBA in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage), he makes 3-pointers on the move, against close-outs and off of screens.
The Cavs use Merrill’s deadly shooting on out-of-bounds play calls. Here, Merrill is subbed in right before this baseline out-of-bounds play and it’s run to get him an open look from the corner.
This do-anything 3-point shooting ability has given plenty of NBA players long careers, guys like J.J. Reddick, Kyle Korver, Danny Green. And the NBA’s need for high-level 3-point shooters has only grown since those players were starring in small roles for their respective teams.
To be quite truthful, Merrill’s superb showing in the 2023 Summer League probably started this hype. After three seasons of relative obscurity, playing in just 41 games between 2020 and the end of last season, Merrill starred in last summer’s Las Vegas festivities. He earned a spot on the All-Summer League team thanks to him averaging 20.4 points across five summer league games, a span in which he also shot 25 of 56 (which in five games comes out to more than 10 threes attempted per game). It punctuated what Merrill had been doing in the G-League with the Cleveland Charge, scoring 17.0 points per game, including a 42.5 percentage on threes.
But given a chance to actually play at the NBA level has shown what Merrill is truly capable of. He started off the season as a fringe rotation player, playing in just 12 of the Cavs’ 23 games, and only saw 8.5 minutes in those scant opportunities. But after Darius Garland suffered a broken jaw on Dec. 14, Merrill has been called on more and more. Since Garland’s injury, Merrill’s appeared in every game he’s been healthy for (he missed two games in late December due to a wrist injury), playing 22.8 minutes per contest.
The numbers behind Merrill’s run of form are truly staggering when put into context. He’s not one of the league leaders in overall 3-point attempts, entirely due to a lack of minutes, but in terms of how many Merrill takes and how many he makes at such a high volume is monumental.
Merrill is currently averaging 17.8 threes per 100 possessions played and we’ve already reached an absurd number. Among qualified players since the 3-point line was implemented in 1979, that’s the highest rate of 3-pointers. Yes, the highest ever. Merrill’s only peers in this regard are 2018-19 James Harden (17.6) and 2020-21 Steph Curry (17.5).
Even in terms of efficiency, Merrill is not lagging behind the greats in shooting. Of players that have eclipsed 15.5 threes per 100 possessions (since setting the line at 17 produces too few other candidates) Merrill is third in his 3-point percentage. His season sits smack in the middle of a bunch of Curry’s greatest single-season hits
Among qualified players with at least 15.5 3PA per 100 possessions, Sam Merrill’s efficiency is basically only matched or exceeded by a bunch of Steph Curry seasons.
I know it’s not the largest sample size, but it’s still crazy. pic.twitter.com/5puRdOXz4E
— Jason Walker (@jwalker_sports) January 23, 2024
Merrill’s shooting prowess has led teammate and former Utah Jazz star, Donovan Mitchell, to call for Merrill to be in the NBA’s 3-point contest held during All-Star Weekend.
— Donovan Mitchell (@spidadmitchell) January 21, 2024