That fantasy was often enough to push him through the heat, the isolation, the frequent rejection when a villager had committed to join him at church but then disappeared.
“Every time I’m in a tough situation,” Merrill said this week, “I always think about my mission and how difficult that was. Because of that, the joys came; when things get tough, just keep working hard.”
Last week, of course, the NCAA tournament was canceled amid fears of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Neither Merrill nor Utah State nor any other would-be participant will collect those shining moments, and just as relevant to their futures, fringe NBA prospects such as Merrill won’t get to have the kind of unforgettable March showcase that can leave an impression.
Not only will there be no tournament, the NBA hasn’t made a final decision on whether it will hold its annual draft lottery or scouting combine, both of which are scheduled for late May. Merrill, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard who averaged 27.7 points during the Mountain West Conference tournament, could have announced himself as a star worthy of attention or perhaps even a lottery pick — as did BYU’s Jimmer Fredette in 2011 and Davidson’s Stephen Curry in 2008.
Without the March boost, ESPN basketball analyst Seth Greenberg said, Merrill could fall to the end of the second round or out of the draft entirely. He’s an accurate shooter with decent size, but Merrill — who will turn 24 on May 15 — started his college career later than most players and would therefore be older than most NBA rookies.
“When you get that moment taken away from you, you can never get it back,” Greenberg said. “He probably could’ve helped himself there, and he’s an ‘if.’ But if he had that moment — if he had a matchup against a guy who’s higher on someone’s draft board and absolutely kills it — who knows?”
For now, reality has a feel similar to what Merrill imagined years ago. He doesn’t know when or if certain events will take place. The draft is still scheduled for June, but Merrill said he’s uncertain whether it will be delayed. After his career abruptly ended, Merrill said he gave himself the weekend off to begin processing the shattering of his expectations and hopes.
“We had all been anticipating that it was going to come; just like that, my career was over,” Merrill said. “That was probably what hit me the hardest. It was very unorthodox.”
After attempting to make sense of the nationwide uncertainty along with his own future, he returned to the weight room and basketball court this week to resume training and conditioning. He began researching agents, who would negotiate his first professional contract and perhaps find creative ways to promote him. Staying busy, the now former Aggies player said, was all he knew to do.
“At the end of the day, I’m a fringe guy anyway,” he said. “So whether I played well in the tournament or not, I’m going to have to prove myself in these workouts and in the combine. My mind-set has been the same: I’ve got to get into great shape, and hopefully I can prove that I’m good enough.”
Greenberg pointed out that, if there’s ever a year to be an in-between player with high hopes, it’s 2020. There are few obvious lottery picks and zero sure things. Whenever the draft happens, teams nonetheless will select 60 players over two rounds.
“An ‘if’ is pretty good,” Greenberg said. “In this year's draft, it's hard to get to 60. It really is.”
Although Merrill said he is disappointed by the past two weeks’ impact on his future, his time in Nicaragua conditioned him to become well versed in frustration. Each day he and his companion would go door to door, sweating through their trousers and white shirts, and invite the residents to church. And every day, those residents would say yes; of course they would be there Sunday morning.
Just to be sure, Merrill occasionally would stop back by throughout the week, just to check in and reaffirm that commitment. It remained unchanged, but as the months passed, Merrill had taught himself to be a realist — determined and hopeful, but a realist nonetheless.
“You work so hard to help those people,” Merrill said, “and teach them what you believe to be right.”
Then on Sunday, he would stop back by the clay houses and knock again. No answer. He knew the residents were home, but for the first time all week, the door wouldn’t open. Eventually, the missionaries would leave, and Merrill offers no apologies for feeling frustration or even anger.
He just kept moving forward, heading to the next house to fulfill a mandatory duty, hoping it would be the next door that opened — no matter the disappointment he had just walked away from.
“Those are the moments where you have to decide what kind of person you’re going to be,” Merrill said. “We’d just say we’ve got to move on and go talk to the next person we’d see and invite them. Those are the moments that you have to decide if you’re going to be tough or if you’re just going to give up.”