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UNC basketball: It’s time to start Sterling Manley

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The freshman big has been grinding hard for his shot, and the end of the Notre Dame game may be a sign of what’s to come.

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Late in the Heels’ game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Kenny Williams picked up his fifth foul on a 50/50 ball and fouled out. The Heels were up by 1 with less than a minute left and they had just sent the Irish to the line. Roy Williams knew that playing small ball without Kenny wasn’t a great idea, so he sent in freshman Sterling Manley. Manley got the ball out of a timeout with 10 seconds left and took a shot that hit nothing but air, at least until it fell into the hands of Joel Berry II. He got fouled on the put-back, hit his free throws, and UNC snuck away with the victory once Notre Dame’s last-gasp shot hit a hundred percent of the rim but zero percent of the net.

That Roy went with Manley over Brooks is telling. The Heels were dominated on the boards all game, something extremely uncharacteristic for a team that entered the game leading the entire NCAA in both rebounds per game and total rebound percentage. So in the crucial last possessions, Roy trusted the height and rebounding abilities of Manley over Brooks.

I say all this to underscore that while I’m not positive he will start UNC’s game against the Clemson Tigers on Tuesday, I wholeheartedly believe he should start. (Full disclosure: I also boldly predicted he would be starting by the end of the season.) The Heels have leaned on small ball lineups the last two games in order to bounce back after losing back-to-back games. Swingman Cameron Johnson took the spot of another freshman big, Garrison Brooks, in order to join the solidified top four of Berry, Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, and Theo Pinson. Those four aren’t going anywhere. But that fifth starting spot is up for grabs.

Has Manley done enough to grab it? Yes. If the fact that he was on the floor for the critical moments of a road conference game isn’t enough evidence for you, don’t worry. I have plenty more where that came from.

Advanced Metrics Love Him

(Disclaimer: the advanced metrics, per College Basketball Reference, have yet to be updated to reflect the results of the Notre Dame game.)

Well, let’s actually start with one of the least advanced metrics of all: simple field goal percentage. Among all qualifying players on the UNC roster, Manley leads the team in field goal percentage with 56.1%, beating out Garrison Brooks’ 54.1%. (Aaron Rohlman is shooting 100%, but on only two attempts.) And it’s not like he’s not getting a lot of shots: his 66 attempts rank 6th on the team. But if something old fashioned like field goal percentage isn’t enough, there are some fancier stats that say even better things about Manley’s play.

Per-40 minute averages extrapolate a player’s stats across the length of an actual game. So, should a player score ten points and grab five rebounds across ten minutes of play, their per-40 averages would be 40 points and 20 rebounds. Manley’s aren’t that good, but they’re still amazing: 19.8 points (third on the team) and 16.5 rebounds (first on the team). He’s also got a tidy 2.5 blocks per 40 minutes. It’s tricky to assume that he could necessarily keep up the pace like that for an entire game, as his career high in minutes played is only 19 against Tennessee. But when he’s played, he’s played well.

We can get even fancier. Player efficiency rating (PER) is an all-in-one metric that tries to distill a player’s performance in a single number. The average player’s PER is always 15, so it’s also a measure of how well a player performs among his peers. Nick Ward of Michigan State leads the NCAA in PER at 36.8. Luke Maye leads the Heels with 25.1. Sterling Manley is second at 23.1.

Advanced metrics also back up Manley’s ability to crash the boards. Rebounding percentage is a measure of how many available rebounds a player got while he was on the floor. Manley leads the Heels with a 17.8% offensive rebound percentage and 21.8% overall. As a point of comparison, Nick Ward leads the NCAA in OR percentage with 18.9%. Manley is tied for fourth in the entire NCAA in that statistic. Basically, what that stat says is that based on his past performance, Manley has about a one in five chance of pulling down any attempted shot that doesn’t pass through the net. That’s astounding.

He’s A Matchup Nightmare For Clemson

The tallest players on Clemson’s roster are Mark Donnal and Elijah Thomas at 6’9’’. Donnal, in fact, is the only player listed as a forward/center on Clemson’s team website. While it might be tempting to continue the small ball experiment against a team that lacks for height, it may be a better idea for Roy to put Manley out there to crash the boards and get high percentage looks against shorter players in the paint. Especially after the Heels lost the rebounding margin by 8 against ND (including getting out-rebounded on the offensive glass 20-13!), it’s time to show why UNC is the best rebounding team in the country.

Clemson will be a difficult test for not just Manley but the entire Tar Heel squad, but the game is at home and the Tigers will be fighting to break the 0-58 curse of never having won in Chapel Hill. This is the best the Tigers have been in a while, though, and they will almost certainly be ranked above UNC when the teams meet on Tuesday. What better time is there to throw a wrench in Clemson’s gameplan and give Manley the chance of his life?

Roy Trusts Him

As if it wasn’t enough that Manley finished the game in relief of the disqualified Kenny Williams, the play that had been drawn up out of that timeout with ten ticks left on the clock was an alley-oop for Manley! When the play broke down, Manley still took the shot, and even though it didn’t hit the rim it still hit the hands of Joel Berry II, and the rest was history. The stakes literally could not have been higher—down a point with only ten seconds left on the road against a conference opponent. Manley didn’t hit the shot, but he was out there, and the ball was in his hands. That speaks volumes.

The Case Against Him

This piece has largely been me singing Manley’s praises, but he’s obviously far from being a perfect player. If anything, he still has plenty of room to grow. Heck, he’s only got 18 games under his belt! But I’ll use this space to identify a few specific areas in which he needs to better his play.

The main issue that plagues his play is free throws, which is especially problematic considering he leads the Heels by a mile in free throw attempt rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt) with .697. Pinson is second at .545. However, Manley ranks fourth from the bottom on the Heels with a 63% free throw percentage. That said, he does beat out Luke Maye (60.6%) as well as the other two freshman bigs (Brandon Huffman 58.3%, Garrison Brooks 50%).

Manley can also work on his passing. Bigs being able to move the ball around well is a key part of any Roy Williams offense, and Manley just doesn’t really have that as part of his game yet. Across regular rotation players (which I consider to be players averaging double-digit minutes per game), Manley ranks dead last in assists with 7 total. That’s especially damning when you consider that he’s turned the ball over 21 times. His assist/turnover ratio is a horrific -3. But there’s nowhere to go but up!

To sum everything up: Sterling Manley is an unproven player, yes. All the more reason for him to be able to prove himself. It’s time to #ManUp.