Ask Utah State basketball coach Craig Smith one question about his returned missionary junior guard Sam Merrill and he can go on for hours.
Here's the summarized version: Merrill, a 6-foot-5 junior guard from Bountiful, is the ultimate competitor. He's dependable, a hard worker, guys love playing with him because he inspires confidence, he's unselfish, his efficiency is off the charts, he has a high basketball IQ, he's a great communicator, he's another coach on the floor, he's one of the top shooters in the country, and he's a great passer and underrated as a defender, the Aggies' coach said.
"You don't always get a smile out of him," Smith said with a laugh. "But one thing I've always heard about Sam, all he cares about is winning. He doesn't care about his stats, how many points he gets. I think he likes passing more than scoring, quite frankly. … It's sure nice when you've got a guy like that in your program."
While guiding the Aggies to a winning record and leading the team in scoring, assists, and steals, there's one other distinguishing quality that Smith admires about Merrill. It's his maturity level, which the coach attributes to Merrill's service as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nicaragua.
Before coming to Utah State, Smith had only ever coached one returned missionary in his career and "he loved coaching that kid," he said. Now with seven returned missionaries on Utah State's roster, Smith values their contributions and is open to coaching more in the future.
Utah State guard Sam Merrill (5) drives around Weber State center Zach Braxton, rear, in the second half of a game Saturday Dec. 8, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Image by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
"I embrace it," Smith said. "In my perspective, we embrace it with open arms because our guys have come back with a high maturity level and a fantastic perspective on life. Our guys have been unbelievable." (For a full interview with Merrill and how his mission has impacted his college basketball career, click here or go to the second page of the article.)
Merrill and his teammates are seven of more than 40 male and female returned Latter-day Saint missionaries playing Division I college basketball this season.
Returned Missionaries Playing Division I Basketball
Besides Merrill and six other returned missionaries playing at Utah State, there are at least 13 other Division I basketball programs with returned missionaries on their rosters this season. BYU tops the list with 10; Idaho State, Utah Valley, and Southern Utah are next with four each, including three returned sister missionaries playing for the T-Birds' women's team. The University of Utah has three and Weber State has two. Air Force, Boston College, Brown, Colgate, Marquette, Oregon State, and USC each have one.
This following list is not all-inclusive. If you know of a returned missionary who is playing college basketball at a Division I school not listed, please send the name of the player, the team, and where the player served his or her mission to email@example.com.
Air Force (1)
Isaac Monson, Salt Lake City (Olympus HS), Fr., forward; served in Colombia.
Brigham Young University (10)
Gavin Baxter, Provo (Timpview HS), Fr., forward; served in Washington, D.C.
McKay Cannon, Shelley, Idaho (Shelley HS/Weber State), Sr., guard; served in Chile.
Nick Emery, Alpine (Lone Peak HS), Jr., guard; served in Germany.
Connor Harding, Pocatello, Idaho (Highland HS), Fr., guard; served in Atlanta.
TJ Haws, Alpine (Lone Peak HS), Jr., guard; served in France.
Brigham Young Cougars guard TJ Haws (30) shoots a layup against St. Mary's Gaels at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. Image by Silas Walker, Deseret News
Taylor Maughan, Fullerton, Calif., (BYU-Hawaii), Jr., guard; served in Ohio and Oklahoma.
Dalton Nixon, Orem (Orem HS), Jr., forward; served in Boston.
Zac Seljaas, Bountiful (Bountiful HS), Jr., guard; served in Iowa.
Jesse Wade, Kaysville (Davis HS/Gonzaga), So., guard; served in France.
Luke Worthington, Mequon, Wisc. (Homestead HS), Sr., forward; served in Chile.
Boston College (1)
Jordan Chatman, Vancouver, Wash. (Union HS/BYU), Sr., guard; served in Taipei, Taiwan.
Boston College's Jordan Chatman (25) defends Duke's Jack White (41) during the first half of a game in Durham, N.C., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. Image by Chris Seward, Associated Press
Zach Hunsaker, North Salt Lake (Orem HS/Snow), Jr., guard; served in Mozambique and Swaziland.
David Maynard, Herriman (Herriman HS), So., guard; served in Argentina.
Idaho State University (4)
Austin Smellie, Preston, Idaho (Preston HS), Fr., guard; served in Argentina.
Jared Stutzman, Idaho Falls, Idaho (Bonneville HS), Jr., guard/forward; served in Arcadia, California.
Lyle Sutton, Rexburg, Idaho (Madison HS), So., guard; served in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Blake Truman, Las Vegas (Legend HS), Sr., forward/center; Served in Dallas.
Brendan Bailey, Salt Lake City (American Fork HS), Fr., forward; served in Washington, D.C.
Xavier guard Paul Scruggs, left, shoots against Marquette forward Brendan Bailey in the first half of a game, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019, in Cincinnati. Image by John Minchillo Associated Press
Oregon State (1)
Payton Dastrup, Mesa, Ariz. (Mountain View HS/BYU), Jr., forward; served in Panama.
Southern Utah University (4)
Jessica Chatman, Ridgefield, Wash. (Union HS/BYU), So., forward; served in Lansing, Michigan.
Maizen Fausett, Saratoga Springs (Westlake HS), Fr., forward; served in Fort Worth, Texas.
Ashley Larsen, American Fork (American Fork HS/UVU), Jr., guard/forward; served in Austria and Germany.
Kiana Thomas, Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Northridge HS/Northern Colorado), Jr., forward; served in Cape Verde, Africa.
Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu, left, strips the ball from Southern Utah's Ashley Larsen as Maite Cazorla, right, defends during an NCAA college basketball game in Eugene, Oregon, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017.Creator - Brian DaviesSource - The Register-Guard/Associated Press
University of Utah (3)
Brandon Morley, South Jordan (Bingham HS/Western Nebraska CC/SLCC), Jr., forward/center; Served in Spain.
Beau Rydalch, Oakley, Summit County (South Summit HS), Jr., guard; served in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Parker Van Dyke, Salt Lake City (East HS), Sr., guard; served in Alabama.
McKay Anderson, La Canada, Calif. (La Verne Lutheran/Southern Utah/Pasadena City College), Jr., guard; served in Boston.
Utah State University (7)
Crew Ainge, Wellesley, Mass. (Kimball Union Academy), So., guard; served in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Justin Bean, Moore, Okla. (Southmoore HS), Fr., forward; served in Reno, Nevada.
Alek Johnson, Evanston, Wyo. (Evanston HS), Fr., guard; served in Southern California.
Sam Merrill, Bountiful (Bountiful HS), Jr., guard, served in Nicaragua.
Brock Miller, Sandy (Brighton HS), Fr., guard; served in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Abel Porter, Farmington (Davis HS), So., guard; served in Russia.
Quinn Taylor, Houston (Langham Creek HS), Sr., forward; served in Sao Paulo.
Utah Valley guard Conner Toolson stretches to pull in a long rebound against the Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners during the Western Athletic Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 8, 2018.Creator - Ravell CallSource - Deseret News
Utah Valley University (4)
Richard Harward, Orem (Orem HS), So., center; served in Perth, Australia.
Casdon Jardine, Twin Falls, Idaho (Twin Falls HS/College of Southern Idaho/Boise State), Jr., guard/forward; served in Brazil.
Wyatt Lowell, Gilbert, Ariz. (Williams Field HS), Fr., forward; served in Minnesota.
Conner Toolson, Highland (Lone Peak HS), Sr., guard; served in Fort Worth, Texas
Weber State (2)
Tim Fuller, Gilbert, Ariz. (Highland HS), Fr., forward; served in El Salvador.
Caleb Leonhardt, Kaysville (Davis HS), Fr., guard; served in Taipei, Taiwan.
Sam Merrill on How His Mission Shaped His Basketball Career
In a recent interview, Merrill talked about how serving a mission has influenced his life, his USU mentor, lessons in leadership and his decision to stay at Utah State through multiple coaching changes, among other topics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trent Toone: You grew up in a family of die-hard Aggie fans and attended games in the Spectrum where you idolized former great Jaycee Carroll. Your sister is an assistant USU soccer coach and you married a Utah State soccer player. You committed to play for Stew Morrill before your mission and returned home to a coaching change, then experienced another coaching transition this past off-season. Even with all your USU ties, did you ever consider leaving Utah State to play somewhere else?
Sam Merrill: No, I'm not sure I ever did. When I heard that Stew Morrill was leaving and Tim Duryea was his replacement, it seemed like it would be pretty seamless, so I decided to stick with it.
Going through a coaching change after last year was difficult just because I had no idea who the new coach was going to be. I wasn't sure if I was going to love him or hate him. So there's definitely thoughts there of, hey, if I don't like this guy, maybe I'll move on and try to go somewhere else. But when I met coach Smith I knew he was the right guy and decided to stick it out. I met with him a few days after he was hired and I was sold. You could feel the energy and passion and I knew he was the right guy for this program.
TT: Who's had the biggest influence on you since joining the USU basketball program?
SM: I'd probably have to say Spencer Nelson, who played here back in the day and has been one of our assistants the past few years. He's been a great influence and a great friend of mine. These past few years when we were going through tough times, he was someone I could look up to, that I could talk to and who would help push me through those because he's been through similar experiences. Obviously with the coaching change he wasn't able to stick around. But he's still one of my good friends and I keep in touch with him, go to dinner with him all the time. He's a guy I really look up to.
TT: In a 2017 Deseret News interview, you said you thought you were tough in high school, but your mission toughened you up even more, and the experience has helped you learn to deal with adversity. What was hard about your mission in Nicaragua and how did it increase your toughness?
SM: I loved my mission, still love it and I'm still grateful for it, but it was very, very difficult.
Serving in Nicaragua we had more success that other missions as far as baptisms and numbers go, but I don't think it was any easier for us. The weather was awful. I mean just sweating, sweating, sweating all day, every day. Sweating going to sleep; sweating waking up. And just all the experiences missionaries go through with trying to learn a new language, trying to deal with rejection and dealing with the heartbreak that comes with people you think are on the right track and all the stuff that happens. The people down there are great, but there were times when you had to figure out if they were being honest or not. Those are a few examples of things that made it hard.
Those things really toughened me up. I learned how to handle that adversity differently and I think that's translated (to post-mission life).
TT: What was your reaction when President Russell M. Nelson announced a temple for Nicaragua last April?
SM: That was a pretty tender moment. We knew when President Thomas S. Monson announced temples but no one was sure when President Nelson would announce temples. I was watching (conference) but had to drive to a family thing — it was Easter — so I listened to his talk but thought he was done and walked out to the car when I got a text from a friend that said, "Congratulations, Sam." I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he said, "Congratulations to me, too." (My friend) served in Russia. Then I realized what I had missed. So I didn't actually see it live, which was very, very hard but I was so, so, so happy.
We spent every single conference we had there in the mission just hoping and praying that (a temple) would come. It didn't at the time but we had faith that those people would one day get it. It came a little sooner than expected, I thought we'd have a few more years, but I'm really happy for them.
Then they had political issues and had to take the missionaries out. But there's a lot of people down there that really have a ton of faith and they're confident and I'm confident that things will work out.
TT: How has your mission experience helped you in your post-mission life as a student, husband, basketball player and team leader?
SM: I learned a lot about, or tried to learn a lot about, leadership on my mission from my various leaders, from my mission president, from the scriptures. I am studying business administration so there's a lot of management and leadership classes on that as well. Some of the stuff that I learned about being positive with those that you're leading and looking to understand their needs, and not just your needs, I think that's helped me more so as a player because you never know what all 15 guys on the team are going through. So as you're trying to lead them, and trying to get the most out of them, I think it's important to try to put yourself in their shoes and see from their point of view, and try to help them that way.
TT: Coach Smith says in 5-on-5 scrimmages and other drills, your team wins about 85 percent of the time. Where does your competitive drive come from?
SM: I grew up in a competitive family. It's actually my mom that's most competitive. Me and my sister would have competitions to convince our parents who is more competitive. Family games didn't usually end up happening for very long because we'd end up fighting because everyone was so competitive. But I'm grateful for the things my parents taught me.
DN: Do you have something you like to do as a hobby when you get a rare moment to relax?
SM: I'm a pretty boring dude. I'm not very adventurous. I don't like anything outdoorsy. I liked reading before but I guess I just read social media now if that counts. I don't play video games. I just love watching sports, TV and hanging out with friends, playing games.
TT: Is there a question you wished sportswriters would ask that they never ask?
SM: At the college level, no. I really don't care. But at the professional level, I would love it if there were some reporters that would be really direct with NBA players. I think most reporters get a little nervous around NBA players because not all of them are very nice. I would love to see one or two reporters who don't care just ask away and see what happens. But at this level, I think most people do a pretty good job.
TT: Do you have any advice for aspiring young basketball players? Anything you wish you would have known before that you know now?
SM: Hard work is very important. But there are a lot of guys who work hard that don't make it to the college level. I just fell in love with the game at a young age and I watched basketball, not just for the entertainment aspect, but I watched to learn, to see how guys played and how they adjusted. I tried to watch with more of a basketball mind as opposed to the mind of a fan. I think that really helped my IQ because I'm not the most athletic guy in the world. I have to be able to use my toughness, my IQ and skill set to be successful. So my advice would be that if it's something you want to do, fall in love with it, make it your No. 1 priority and do everything you can, both inside and outside the gym, to make yourself the best you can be.