See a list of Latter-day Saints who are playing professional basketball around the world

Why Sam Merrill appreciates President Russell M. Nelson’s New Year’s fishing advice

The first few years of Sam Merrill’s professional basketball career have been full of emotional highs and lows, good times and bad, set in a shifting landscape.

“It’s been quite a roller-coaster ride, for sure,” he said.

Here’s a quick recap.

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  • A few months later, Merrill was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies. The situation appeared promising until he suffered an ankle injury, needed surgery and was waived, he said.
  • In 2022, the former Utah State University Aggie signed with the Sacramento Kings in hopes of earning a roster spot, but was waived prior to the start of the season. “I did a lot of good stuff, I felt like I put myself in a good position,” he said. “It didn’t work out.”
  • A short time later Merrill was the first pick of the NBA G League draft by the Cleveland Charge, the Cavalier’s G League affiliate.

“Now here we are in Cleveland. It’s been a crazy experience, a lot of ups and downs,” Merrill said in a Church News phone interview. “But I feel like I’ve really grown as a person. I think it’s been good for me overall.”

Sam Merrill of the NBA G Leagues’ Cleveland Charge stands with his hand on his heart prior to the game against the Westchester Knicks on January 2, 2023.
Sam Merrill of the NBA G Leagues’ Cleveland Charge stands with his hand on his heart prior to the game against the Westchester Knicks on January 2, 2023. | NBAE via Getty Images

President Nelson’s fishing advice

Given his seesaw experience, Merrill has especially appreciated President Russell M. Nelson’s 2023 New Year’s social media message about striving to be patient, persistent and prayerful. The Latter-day Saint Prophet’s counsel, learned while deep-sea fishing, applies directly to Merrill’s situation.

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“I think those three things have been, honestly, three of the things that I’ve tried to stick with the most throughout these ups and downs,” Merrill said. “Being persistent, working hard, continuing to work and get after it; being patient with myself and with those around me, understanding there is only so much you can control at this level. I cannot control what decisions teams want to make, so I just have to be the best I can be and let the chips fall as far as that goes.”

Prayer has been the most important of the three P’s, the guard said.

“I’m not begging for something great to happen. I’m not specifically asking to stick in the NBA or sign a long-term contract,” Merrill said. “I’m just asking for whatever is best for me. I have faith that as long as I do my part — it may not work out in the way you expect — but it will always work out because that’s what He wants for us.”

Life in the G League

The NBA’s G League reminds Merrill of college basketball in some ways.

Unlike the NBA, G League teams fly commercial flights, often on small planes, to remote locations, usually followed by a bus ride. They don’t stay in five-star hotels, and the food budget is smaller.

Although not as flashy or luxurious, for Merrill, it’s been a “blessing.” He didn’t see the court much as an NBA rookie and missed several months of action following ankle surgery during his second year.

“It’s been such a blessing to just be able to go out and play again,” he said. “Being in a situation where I get to go out and play ... heavy minutes and have the ball in my hands. ... It’s been great for me. I’ve grown a bunch in the last couple of months. ... I’m loving it, playing.”

Merrill also has the advantage of having served a full-time mission in Nicaragua for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I always tell people nothing I do on a basketball court will ever be as hard as the experience that I went through there. I can run and run and do conditioning, all this stuff, but the mission was very, very hard from a physical and emotional standpoint,” he said. “The ups and downs of that certainly apply to what I’m trying to do here.”

Merrill expressed gratitude for his wife, Kanyan, their 8-month-old daughter and their families for supporting him and allowing him to pursue his basketball career.

Latter-day Saints in NBA’s G League

Merrill is one of four Latter-day Saints playing in the NBA’s G League, a minor league basketball organization. The other three are Justin Bean, Frank Jackson and Eric Mika.

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Justin Bean: Merrill’s former teammate at Utah State, Bean is averaging 10 points, 6.6 rebounds and one assist per game this season for the Memphis Hustle, an affiliate of the Memphis Grizzlies. Bean, a descendant of the Willard Bean, “The Fighting Preacher,” served his mission in Reno, Nevada.

Frank Jackson: After playing for New Orleans and Detroit in the NBA, the former Duke University and Lone Peak High School player is averaging 20.5 points a game for the Salt Lake City Stars.

Eric Mika: Since serving a mission in Rome, Italy, and leaving Brigham Young University, the 6-foot-10 center/forward has played professionally in Italy, Germany, China, Serbia and France. In 2019-20, he suited up for the Stockton Kings, the G League affiliate of the Sacramento Kings. This year, Mika is averaging 12.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and three assists a game in Henderson, Nevada, for the G League’s Ignite.

Latter-day Saints playing in foreign countries

  • Elijah Bryant, a former BYU Cougar, is averaging 16 points a game for Turkey’s Anadolu Efes. He and Merrill were on the roster when Milwaukee defeated Phoenix in the NBA finals in 2021. Bryant also helped Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Israeli League title in 2020 and was a key contributor for Anadolu Efes when it won the EuroLeague crown.
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  • Brandon Davies, former BYU big man, is playing for Italy’s Olimpia Milano following years in Spain, Lithuania, Monaco and short stints in the NBA with the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. He has pinned a scripture from the Book of Mormon, Alma 26:12, on his Twitter account.
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Not on a roster

Two Latter-day Saints not currently found on rosters include former Duke star Jabari Parker and BYU legend Jimmer Fredette.

Parker, selected No. 2 overall in the 2014 NBA draft, has played for several NBA teams over the years, most recently in Boston during the 2021-2022 season. He is currently a free agent.

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Fredette bounced around with several NBA teams before playing in Greece and China in recent years. He told the Deseret News he plans to compete and qualify for the United States in the 3x3 basketball competition in the 2024 Paris Olympics after having won the FIBA 3x3 AmeriCup in Nov. 2022.

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Jaycee Carroll’s USU jersey

Another pro no longer playing is former Utah State sharpshooter Jaycee Carroll.

The Wyoming native played professionally in Europe for 13 seasons before stepping away from professional basketball in 2021. During that time, Carroll was part of two EuroLeague titles, five Spanish League championships, six Kings Cups, six Super Cups and a FIBA Intercontinental Cup Championship.

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Carroll, who served a mission in Chile, will have his No. 20 jersey retired in a halftime ceremony during the USU-Nevada game on Feb. 18.

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