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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: Sterling Manley

The rising junior will look to put last season’s injury woes behind him,

Virginia v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Welcome back to our UNC Basketball Summer Preview Series. This is the third installment of our slightly educated, heavily opinionated break down of next season’s basketball roster. We started with rising senior Brandon Robinson and rising junior Brandon Huffman. Today’s lucky participant is fellow rising junior and big man, Sterling Manley.

You can catch the previous breakdowns by clicking the links below.

June 23rd: Brandon Robinson preview

June 30th: Brandon Huffman preview

Before last season, I said that Sterling Manley was vital to UNC’s success. The idea was that the Heels needed an inside presence to give Garrison Brooks a rest and provide some additional rim protection. That turned out to be partially true. North Carolina survived the regular season with share of the ACC title and a #1 seed. That wasn’t enough to avoid an ill-timed beat down by the Auburn Tigers, who decimated the Heels in the paint in the first half before finally catching fire from outside in the second half.

No, Manley’s absence was not the reason for an early March departure. The flu, a freshman point guard, and a lack of playmakers on the wing all created a perfect storm. A healthy Manley, however, could have helped make UNC less one-dimensional and/or predictable. The key, though, is a healthy Manley.

A promising freshman season saw Sterling average 10.0 minutes 5.3 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. Not overwhelming, but respectable for a guy who broke both legs in high school and never quite passed UNC’s conditioning test. An early double-double against Bucknell raised our hopes. Then against top-tier competition, like Michigan, he showed a deft touch on this turnaround jumper.

As that season went on he showed signs of growth that are mandatory for Tar Heel big men. There was this gem against Syracuse - a game where he put up 12 and 6. He trails the play, gets position in the post, and is rewarded.

And here his defense started a fast break that resulted in an Andrew Platek three-pointer (not shown). Note how Manley blocks the shot at the rim, but still beat the ball up the court. That was massive progress for a guy that notoriously struggled with conditioning.

And of course, there was this memorable moment against Louisville.

All of this is to say the optimism was not misplaced. Unfortunately, a knee injury led to a lackluster start to his sophomore campaign. A decrease in minutes, productivity, and efficiency followed. Manley only participated in 18 games, missing most of the ACC season. When he returned in March, he totaled nine minutes in six appearances. It was a lost season.

In those 18 games, Manley only averaged 8.3 minutes, 3.5 points, and 2.9 rebounds. Acceptable production for such limited time, but it was clear a “sophomore leap” was not going to happen. He was serviceable against mid-majors like Tennessee Tech and Elon, but struggled against Gonzaga, Texas, and UCLA. The decisiveness and confidence that were on display late in his freshman season were missing. A lingering knee injury sidelined him for all of January and February.

A player who at one point had (and still might have) under-the-radar NBA potential was relegated to rehab and frustration. UNC’s depth never materialized. By the end of conference play, the Heels were limited to a seven-man rotation with an undersized Garrison Brooks at center. Whereas Huffman was a known project, Manley’s regression arguably altered many of the Heels’ pre-season plans or expectations.

So what does all of this mean for next season?

The easy answer is that a return to his form as a freshman would be the first encouraging sign for a bounce back season. Like that season, there are three bodies vying for the center position between Manley, Huffman, incoming freshman Armando Bacot. Garrison Brooks could provide some competition, but will likely move to his more natural power forward position with Luke Maye having graduated. Regardless, Manley has some key attributes at his disposal.

As the above clips show, Manley is more polished in the post than Huffman (and maybe Bacot), but hasn't shown the same aggressiveness. When he receives the ball in the post, Manley has preferred fade away jumpers instead of attacking the rim. Whether it was indecisiveness or struggling with coordination of his 6-11 frame, at times Manley looked more like a baby giraffe than a college basketball player. That’s acceptable for a freshman or sophomore, but more will be needed in his third season. Ignoring the optics of Manley’s flailing limbs, the most important aspect is that Manley has simply produced in his limited minutes.

We had fun with projected numbers last week for Huffman, and it’s only fair to do the same for Manley. For the past two seasons he has been first or second on the team in DRB% (23.8% and 26.4%) and TRB% (19.2% and 18.3%). As a freshman, he was second on the team in ORB% (14.4%). The dude just gobbles up boards – a key tenet to Roy Williams’ philosophy. With human double-double machine Luke Maye gone, there will be a need for rebounding.

Additionally, Manley is 57% from the floor and 66% from the foul line in his two seasons. Both numbers are respectable for a big man and suggests sneaky production potential. In fact, his per-40 projections as a freshman was a ridiculous 21.7 points and 14.4 rebounds. As a sophomore, those only dropped slightly to 16.9 points and 14.2 rebounds. Like I said – the guy just produces. And, despite his injury, he still maintained a DRtg of 91.2 last season. There is unlocked potential waiting to bust through.

Considering his injury background and lack of development last season, realistic expectations are important. If Manley can give 10 productive minutes in non-conference play as he eases back into competition, the Heels can build the depth and flexibility in the post that eluded them last year. Barring any physical setbacks, and if the non-conference season shows a return (or improvement) to his form, 15-17 minutes in ACC play is the best-case scenario for his junior campaign.

Admittedly, that’s probably more than any fan realistically expects. If that transpires, the Heels would benefit from a true return to their preferred system of two big men. The past two NCAA tournaments have proven that you need an effective post-presence for a deep run. A healthy Manley is the key to the Heels fixing those mismatches that plagued them since Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley patrolled the paint.