Latter-day Saints in the NBA: Sam Merrill, Elijah Bryant and Jabari Parker ready for postseason

Plenty of Latter-day Saint hoops fans who have never stepped foot in Wisconsin will still likely be rooting for the Milwaukee Bucks as the team’s NBA playoffs get underway on Saturday, May 22.

Two of the Bucks’ reserve guards — Sam Merrill and Elijah Bryant — are Church members.

Meanwhile, Boston Celtics’ forward Jabari Parker begins his postseason play on Tuesday, May 18, when his team begins their postseason play-in tilt versus the Washington Wizards.

Both Merrill and Bryant are NBA rookies, but their tenure with Milwaukee is a bit different.

Milwaukee Bucks' Sam Merrill tries to steal the ball from Charlotte Hornets' P.J. Washington during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 9, 2021, in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee Bucks’ Sam Merrill tries to steal the ball from Charlotte Hornets’ P.J. Washington during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 9, 2021, in Milwaukee. Credit: Morry Gash, Associated Press

A returned missionary from Bountiful, Utah, Merrill has spent the entire 2020-2021 season on the Bucks roster after being drafted in the second round of the 2020 draft out of Utah State University.

Although playing time has sometimes been tough to find on his talent-laden team, Merrill has enjoyed some memorable moments this season, including a career-high 15 point game against the Boston Celtics in March.

The Church News profiled Merrill at the beginning of his senior year at Utah State. He spoke candidly about the impact serving a mission in Nicaragua has had on his basketball career.

“I learned how to be mentally tough through difficult times,” he said.

A grueling practice or conditioning session, he added, “will never be as hard as some of the things that I went through on my mission.”

In 2018, Merrill married Utah State soccer player Kanyan Ward. His Instagram page includes a link to the Church’s official Instagram account — and an emoji of the flag of Nicaragua, his mission country.

Chicago Bulls forward Patrick Williams, right, shoots over Milwaukee Bucks guard Elijah Bryant during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Sunday, May 16, 2021.
Chicago Bulls forward Patrick Williams, right, shoots over Milwaukee Bucks guard Elijah Bryant during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Sunday, May 16, 2021. Credit: Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

Bryant, meanwhile, is a Bucks newcomer, signing with the team on May 13 after playing with Maccabi Tel Aviv of the Israeli League since 2019. 

The Brigham Young University product didn’t take long to fit in with his new squad. On May 16, he came off the bench to score 16 points — along with six rebounds and three assists — in a memorable NBA debut.

In a 2020 interview with the Deseret News, Bryant talked about how his game has improved since he entered the professional ranks.

“For me, consistency is something I’ve improved on. Consistency is so important. In college, I didn’t really understand that. I did whatever the team needed me to do, I’ll do. I still do that but it’s about being consistent at a few things.”

Like Merrill, Bryant is open about his faith. His Instagram account also has a link to the Church’s Instagram page and often includes religious-themed messages. He and his wife, Jenelle, are the parents of a baby boy, Blu.

A seasoned NBA veteran who played his college ball at Duke, Parker joined the Celtics late in the 2020-2021 season. He brings to Tuesday’s play-in game postgame experience. He made his own NBA playoffs debut in 2018 with the Milwaukee Bucks.