As it stands now, the five spot in the Tar Heels’ 2018-2019 starting lineup is up for grabs. There’s the possibility that Roy Williams goes small again and slides Luke Maye to the five, but let’s assume he at least kicks the season off with a traditional lineup. In this case, that spot will likely come down to two sophomores: Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley.
We were having a similar discussion around this time a year ago. Brooks and Manley were unproven freshmen tasked with replacing the likes of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, and Tony Bradley, the latter of which left a glaring hole in the starting lineup. We all know how that went. Brooks and Manley went through their fair share of ups and downs, and ultimately both were coming off the bench once ACC play started to ramp up (Manley’s failure to pass his running tests made him ineligible to start).
We are coming up on a new season, though, and both players now have a year of experience as well as a full offseason to get their bodies and games right. Coach Williams has a much better idea of what he’s getting this time around. What was once pure uncertainty with these two is now sheer excitement. Let’s start by looking at Brooks.
Brooks averaged 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in 14.6 minutes per game last season. As many expected, he got the nod to start at the beginning of the year. While he showed flashes against mid-major competition, it became clear that he wasn’t ready to shoulder such a heavy load just yet when facing the size and strength of power conference teams. Tentativeness as well as a lacking offensive repertoire exposed the freshman.
Soon after Cameron Johnson returned from injury, he replaced Brooks in the starting lineup. From there, Brooks looked much more comfortable in a reserve role. By this point, he had had an adequate amount of time to adjust to college competition, and the lifted pressure seemed to open up his game a little more. His aggressiveness took a big step up, as demonstrated by this poster dunk over Wendell Carter in the ACC tournament:
The emphatic jam was one that early-season Brooks would’ve been hard-pressed to pull off. His overall performance in that game (10 points, 4 rebounds) was a testament to his progress.
Defensively, Brooks was pretty solid all year long. He compiled an impressive seven defensive player of the game awards, third on the team behind Joel Berry (9) and Kenny Williams (10). He was consistent with his footwork guarding the ball and displayed great weak side awareness. Brooks can and will continue to improve in this department, but his main focus needs to be on the other side of the ball.
Last year, Brooks was much too slow and predictable at times with his post moves. He wasn’t exactly considered a difficult cover by opposing defenses. Brooks must carry the momentum he built last season into the summer and expand his skill set. The tools are there for him to succeed offensively, he just has to figure things out.
If Brooks can develop into an even somewhat legitimate scoring threat, he should have a good shot at re-securing the starting position he once had. Starter or not, he is poised to have an increased role and potentially make that freshman-to-sophomore leap next season.