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UNC basketball: Sterling Manley is more than earning his minutes

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The freshman center is putting up video game numbers thus far.

NCAA Basketball: Bucknell at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

We are two games into the season, and while the competition hasn’t been exactly mind-blowing, a few of the offseason questions have been answered. Specifically, some of the frontcourt questions have been answered, but probably not in the way that many people thought.

The assumption all along was that Garrison Brooks would start at the five and give the Tar Heels their best chance at replacing its lost paint production. While Brooks has rightfully earned that starting spot and even excelled in it, another player has emerged for UNC: Sterling Manley.

After struggling with injuries throughout his high school career, Manley was considered the lowest regarded recruit of the three freshman bigs. 247sports had him ranked outside the top 200 and listed him as a three-star. If the first two contests have told us one thing, it’s this: Manley does not look like a three-star.

In 15.5 minutes per game, Manley is averaging a double-double with 12.5 points and 10.5 rebounds. A double-double. In 15.5 minutes. To give you some perspective, in similar minutes (14.6), Tony Bradley averaged 7.1 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Tar Heels last season. Bradley, who was a first-round pick in the 2017 NBA draft, was regularly praised for his ability to produce in limited play. His per-40 minute numbers were a staggering 19.5 points and 14.0 rebounds. As of now, Manley’s per-40 numbers are 32.3 points and 27.1 rebounds.

Look, I know better than to take these numbers at face value. With such a small sample size paired with the fact that he is yet to go up against a power five opponent, those numbers are sure to take a dip. Still, it’s impossible not to get excited about what Manley can provide moving forward.

The Manley-Bradley comparisons extend beyond the numbers, too. Both are (roughly) seven-footers with wingspans that extend well beyond their height listings. Manley has displayed the same knack that Bradley had for catching and keeping the ball at the highest point. Both have soft hands, a high basketball I.Q., and a refined ability to score the ball around the basket, although you could argue that Manley has already shown off a greater offensive repertoire than Bradley ever did.

Against Bucknell, Manley scored in a variety of ways. The most notable of those plays was a turnaround jumper that resulted in an and-one, the first of such for the Tar Heels this season. He was all over the glass on both ends of the court and ultimately instrumental in staving off Bucknell’s second half run.

Again, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. It’s early, he’s a freshman, and more than likely we’ll be reminded of these things in the coming weeks when the Tar Heels’ schedule ramps up. However, after many expected him to get buried on the depth chart, Manley is making a very legitimate case to enter the starting lineup

We could very well see that happen at some point, especially if Roy Williams decides he wants more of a “true” center (Brooks is listed as a power forward). Regardless, Manley will continue to try and replicate his absurd production and efficiency.

North Carolina travels across the country for their first road game of the season against Stanford on Monday at 11:30 ET.