Do you know who Sam Merrill is? The answer likely rests on whether your favorite team is or has played against the Cleveland Cavaliers over the past month (or if sports betting and fantasy basketball crate-digging have become a bit of a nightly compulsion for you). Merrill is a fourth-year shooting guard averaging 16.6 minutes per game off the bench for the Cavs, winners of eight of their past nine games. Somehow, despite circumstances that should have had them plummeting down the standings, they’ve gone 13-4 since All-Star point guard Darius Garland was sidelined indefinitely with a fractured jaw in mid-December and defensive ace Evan Mobley underwent arthroscopic knee surgery earlier that month.
That somehow involves Merrill, who is in the midst of one of the wildest shooting seasons in NBA history—and has, in a way, reshaped the entire Cavaliers offense by getting a permanent green light. A third of the way through the season, Cleveland ranked in the middle of the pack in 3-point attempt rate and percentage of points generated from 3s. Since December 18, when Merrill started receiving regular minutes, the Cavaliers have ranked first and second, respectively, in those categories. Even better, the team is 11-1 when Merrill logs at least 20 minutes—and he’s averaged nearly 10 3-point attempts per night in those games. In the lone loss, against the one-and-done Joe Prunty–led Bucks, Merrill managed to be a plus-one in a 10-point defeat.
There is no one stat that fully captures Merrill’s new reality as one of basketball’s most valuable shooters, but this one comes close: He is attempting 17.7 3-pointers per 100 possessions this season, which is the highest mark of any player in history who has logged at least 300 minutes in a season. Merrill’s rate of attempts edges out Stephen Curry’s 2020-21 season as a plague-year Atlas (17.5) and James Harden’s 2018-19 attempt in Houston to break modern scoring and usage records (17.6)—all while he’s been shooting at a 43.2 percent clip. Or maybe it’s easier to think of Merrill as Double-Time Kyle Korver: He is attempting the same number of 3s per game as Korver did in 2014-15, his lone All-Star season, in nearly half the number of minutes. And while Korver hit some deep 3s in his career, he seldom ran into unconscionable 3s as he was pulling up from the edge of the center logo:
The Cavaliers’ spaced-out offensive recalibration has largely coincided with the best playmaking stretch of Donovan Mitchell’s career—he’s averaged 7.8 assists per game in Garland’s extended absence, and Monday’s dusting of the Magic was a glimpse into the clear lines of vision that Mitchell now operates with. With pristine lanes, he’s getting to the rim more often than he has in the past five seasons, and when coupled with the ever-present threat of his pull-up, offense has never been easier for Mitchell. There is a certain luxury in being able to credibly fake a handoff with Merrill stationed 30 feet out above the break. The number of possibilities out of that one potential action alone put the Magic in a bind. Having to keep the entire defensive lineup on a string to corral the All-Star and the blisteringly hot 43 percent 3-point shooter means completely ignoring two wide-open shooters on the weak side.
The concept of gravity and space in modern sports is built on split-second value judgments that a defense must make in response to perceived threats. Sometimes the threat is enough: Mitchell and offseason signing Max Strus are both shooting below their career standards, but the sheer volume of their attempts puts a staggering amount of pressure on opponents. Sometimes the threat is all there is. Orlando’s sophomore shooter Caleb Houstan has been a below-average 3-point marksman (35.5 percent) thus far in his career, yet he has essentially been forbidden by the Magic to shoot anywhere inside the arc: 93.2 percent of his field goal attempts come from long distance, an attempt rate that would rank as one of the highest in league history. Spacing is essential, and spacers are like pizza: Even a mediocre slice can get the job done under the right circumstances.
Having a nearly instantaneous impact on the Cavaliers offense with his movement shooting has allowed Merrill to improve the visibility of his other skills. It took Duncan Robinson two seasons to develop enough as a driver and playmaker to become the multifaceted offensive player he is this season. Merrill’s accelerated his own timeline. With teams clued into just how dangerous he can be in perpetual motion, Merrill has shown flashes of the end-all-be-all playmaker he was at Utah State. There is a comfort in the two-man game:
And his quick release allows him to subvert expectations every time the ball touches his hands:
Hell, he’s been so reliable for the Cavaliers, he had Tristan Thompson out here confidently making no-look passes out of a hard roll:
(A real What year is this? aside: Thompson’s 25-game suspension due to illegal performance-enhancing substances could be a significant blow to a playoff team lacking in substantive frontcourt depth. Merrill and Thompson were one of the Cavs’ most effective on-court pairings by net rating, and the two had developed real chemistry in handoffs and pick-and-roll actions. Imagine telling this to a Cavs fan back in October.)
The knock on specialists like Merrill, especially in an NBA postseason culture that is often reduced to mismatch hunting, is whether a player’s benefits on one side of the floor outweigh the cost of having them present on the other end. But from the eye test and from all accounts in the organization, Merrill’s effort has added to the Cavs’ top-three defense, not subtracted. He fights through screens, stays attached, and leads the Cavaliers in charges drawn (eight) even though he became a consistent rotation player only over the past month. Of the 10 players in the NBA who have drawn more charges than Merrill this season, only two have played in fewer minutes. One is Draymond Green, one of the greatest defensive players of all time. The other is Jaylin Williams, who was a charge-drawing savant during his time at Arkansas.
“Everybody gets excited about [Merrill’s] shooting ability, but one thing that he is so good at is his defense,” G League affiliate Cleveland Charge coach Mike Gerrity said in an interview with the Chase Down podcast. “Just his ability to just be physical and to know exactly where he’s supposed to get to the ball and the spots he’s supposed to be in. The great thing about Sam is he’s a two-way player. He can make 3s at a ridiculous clip, but also on the defensive end, he’s somebody that you can trust every single possession on the floor.”
Merrill’s staggering success this season makes you wonder how this turn of fortune didn’t happen sooner—and indeed, it might have. He was the 2020 draft’s Mr. Irrelevant (pretty good year for those, eh?) and went on to win a championship with the Milwaukee Bucks before being traded to Memphis for Grayson Allen. There was a role for him on the Grizzlies, one he was prepared to claim, as evidenced by his ridiculous shooting rate of 23 3-point attempts per 100 possessions in the six games he played. But a series of ankle injuries led to season-ending surgery, forcing him to work his way back up from zero. The talent was always there, and Cleveland knew it: He was the first pick in the G League draft last year. The NBA is all about seizing windows of opportunity, especially for shooting specialists. There is room for his ancillary skills to grow within the Cavaliers system, just as Robinson’s have in Miami. But that’s more the cherry on top. Merrill has secured a role on a team that needs him to shoot as much as humanly possible. He is carrying the mantle for an entire archetype into the future.
For decades, a shooting specialist’s role felt akin to a placekicker’s in football: Their value was almost siloed from the rest of the game, judged solely by brute accuracy in niche pressure situations. Over the past decade, volume became more and more integral. These days, the utility of a specialist like Merrill is akin to that of a third-down running back with 4.3 jets and a ChatGPT response to the very human query of how to create more space between work and home life. Like a pass-catching scatback with field-tilting speed, an elite movement shooter forces defenses to negotiate spacetime in novel ways that offenses (in both the NFL and NBA) are still unpacking. Like an AI model tasked with helping you develop a healthier interior life in 2024, this amplified usage is built on hundreds on thousands on millions of data points that, together, construct an algorithmic response befitting the situation—accuracy be damned. Of course, that’s the miracle: Merrill is accurate, too. Oh, to be a machine—to be wanted, to be useful.
Maybe it’s just the Morey-pilled side of my brain talking, but there is something Promethean about a team finding its capital-S Shooter: This is how Miami must have felt with Robinson, how Oklahoma City felt with Isaiah Joe, how Brooklyn felt with Joe Harris. At some point, once Garland and Mobley return, the Cavaliers will have to find a way to coalesce the team’s original vision and the one they’re currently following, but it’s become impossible to see a future that doesn’t involve Merrill’s game-changing presence on the perimeter.