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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.