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UNC basketball: Will Sterling Manley earn a starting position next season?

The running tests could be the only thing standing in his way.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Charlotte Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Last week I previewed Garrison Brooks and his chances at securing a starting spot for the upcoming season. Now it’s time to take a look at fellow big man, Sterling Manley, who is in a similar position.

Manley is perhaps the best candidate of any Tar Heel to make a major leap next year. He averaged 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds last season, but his per-40 numbers were an absurd 21.6 points and 14.4 rebounds. He typically made his presence felt in the limited minutes he received.

The main obstacle preventing Manley from starting was the fact that he didn’t pass all of his running tests. His lack of strength and conditioning showed at times on the court, and is a big reason why he averaged just 10 minutes a contest. If he wants to start next season, beyond simply passing the running tests, Manley will need make significant strides in this department.

Looking at Manley’s 2017-18 season as a whole, things played out similar to how they did with Brooks. He showed great promise during the non-conference but received a wake-up call when the competition elevated. Without such a major size advantage, he was having to work much harder on both ends of the floor. It became clear that he wasn’t ready to be a go-to option in the post.

Still, the offensive potential Manley displayed was undeniable. Multiple broken legs in high school kept him out of the spotlight recruiting-wise, but credit Roy Williams for seeing the kind of player he could be.

Manley possesses nice touch around the rim and his shot is surprisingly smooth. If he can get to his spot, his signature move seems to be a little turnaround jumper that he’s shown he can knock down pretty consistently. Moreover, Manley’s size and length paired with his ability to high point the ball make for an excellent rebounder. This led to many second chance opportunities for the Heels and some easy putbacks for Manley.

Defensively, it’s a different story. Manley got bullied on that end for much of last season, especially when going against athletic bigs in the ACC. He had a hard time keeping his feet in front of the ball and regularly got exploited in the pick and roll. Manley’s shot-blocking ability is commendable, but he struggled to make an impact when pulled away from the basket. He needs to prove he can play solid team defense and not just rely on his size to bail him out.

Fortunately, most of Manley’s deficiencies stem from poor conditioning, which presumably can be fixed with the help of UNC’s outstanding trainers Jonas Sahratian and Doug Halverson.

Overall, Manley looks to be in line for an increased role next season. Assuming he can at least pass his running tests, he figures to have the best chance of the young bigs at earning a starting spot. How hard he is willing to work this offseason, though, will determine how big of a step he takes.