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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: Sterling Manley

The redshirt junior missed last year with an injury. Will he bounce back this season?

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-North Carolina vs Louisville Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

As more information continues to trickle out about the upcoming basketball season, we continue our “summer” preview series. The series started last month with the two returning seniors Andrew Platek and Garrison Brooks. With it looking increasingly possible that some sort of fall/winter basketball will take place, we’ll try to increase the pace over the next couple of weeks. Catch up on what you missed at the links below and we’ll dive into redshirt junior Sterling Manley

3 August: Garrison Brooks
10 August: Andrew Platek

Sterling Manley
2017-18: 37 games, 10.0 mpg, 5.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 0.3 apg, 56.6 FG%, 37.0, 69.2 FT%
2018-19: 18 games, 8.3 mpg, 3.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 0.2 apg, 57.8 FG%, 55.0 FT%
2019-20: DID NOT PLAY

Sterling Manley showed up to UNC as an arguably underrated big man project after suffering two broken legs during his high school career. A promising, if not limited, freshman campaign showed glimpses of a potential starter. He finished that freshman season averaging 10.0 mpg, 5.7 ppg, and 3.6 rpg. Solid contribution on team that earned a #2 seed in the NCAAT.

Unfortunately, a bothersome knee injury stunted his progress as a sophomore and eventually limited to just 18 games. That injury required surgery last December forcing Manley to miss the entirety of last season as well. Athletics are littered with promising athletes derailed by injuries, and Manley very well could be on that path, but that shouldn’t erase hope and optimism for a comeback campaign.

What, though, can reasonably be expected?

With two years of eligibility remaining, Manley has time to re-write his college career. Those closing chapters just may look a little different than originally expected. With two McDonald’s All-Americans in Walker Kessler and Day’Ron Sharpe joining the returning starting duo of Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot, Manley is undoubtedly on the outside looking in.

Manley’s greatest asset is his length and rebounding. He brought a unique skillset that nobody else on the roster possessed. In his his first two seasons he was first or second on the team in DRB% (23.8% and 26.4%) and TRB% (19.2% and 18.3%). As a freshman, Manley was second on the team in ORB% (14.4%). As we know, grabbing rebounds is an outsized requirement in Roy’s system.

He also frustrated opponents simply by entering the game. Who can forget this gem?

However, with 7-0 Kessler, 6-10 Sharpe, and 6-9 Bacot in the fold, UNC has a few options to call on. That’s not a bad thing. Considering Manley’s health, that depth gives the staff flexibility to slowly integrate Manley back into basketball activities and prepare him for a vital role for the 2021-22 season. At that point he’ll be a redshirt senior, and there is at least one known departure when Brooks graduates. Playing time will be available.

Unfortunately, that injury history is what makes previewing Manley for the upcoming season so difficult. I’ll be the first to admit that I believed he was a future NBA talent when he came to UNC. I stand by that assessment, though I acknowledge that likely is not the case now. And, even though on more than one occasion the big man from Pickering, Ohio looked like a baby giraffe flailing around the court, the truth is that Manley simply produced when he was on the court.

As I wrote in his preview for last year:

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.

I still believe he is full of potential that can help a top-tier program. But, with no known update on his current status and a deep rotation, fans should be happy if Manley replicates his freshman numbers and production rate.

If he can do that, UNC will have a bona fide productive eighth or ninth man off the bench, which is something they haven’t really had since that 2017 title run. That development alone would greatly enhance UNC’s chance for success and erase memories of last year’s struggles.