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UNC Basketball Season Awards - Sixth Man of the Year: Sterling Manley

The freshman couldn’t break the starting lineup, but was a tremendous boost off the bench

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Charlotte Practice Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody really knew what was coming with Sterling Manley. The lanky big man from Pickerington, Ohio was lightly recruited and coming off two broken legs. It was reported that he wasn’t even totally comfortable with his grown-up frame yet, having sat in a wheelchair for a significant portion of his growth spurt. We knew that, on paper, he was skilled with good touch around the basket, a half-decent face-up jump shot, and great rebounding skills. But how well would he have retained those attributes coming off such injuries? Expectations varied wildly. Some said he’d play spot minutes and wouldn’t really be able to make an impact in his freshman year. In my freshmen preview before the season, I gave him this slightly more optimistic outlook:

He is definitely a developmental prospect, particularly as a post player, but his offensive touch and defensive ability are tangible benefits that would fit on a college court today, and I expect that to be the case as the season begins. His minutes may be limited as he adjusts to playing a college schedule coming off occasional minutes restrictions due to injury, but he has the tools to play.

This wasn’t a hot take or anything, but I think I projected a little more production from him than most who write about UNC basketball. Consensus seemed to be that Brooks was well ahead of Manley and Brandon Huffman, who were locked in a battle for reserve minutes. While I bought into this a little, I’d like to think I gave Manley a little more credit than most.

Even I didn’t see this coming.

While he didn’t display the consistency, stamina, or defensive awareness that earned Garrison Brooks our Freshman of the Year award, Manley had an excellent freshman year in his own right. His advanced offensive arsenal, defensive disruption, and overall energy when he stepped on the court energized the team, gave the Heels a different dimension from what opponents had been seeing, and got fans excited, and this earns him the Sixth Man of the Year award from us at Tar Heel Blog.

Unlike his classmate Brooks, Manley was unable to break into the starting lineup at all during the season, despite being at times the most impressive player in his class. This was because of his inability to complete the 12-minute run, one of Roy Williams’ three required conditioning tests for starters. Early in the season, Williams offered this Royism:

“If he were to get 62 points and 61 rebounds in a game he still wouldn’t start the next game,” Williams said. “You can’t start unless you pass all of your running tests.”

Despite that, Manley averaged a respectable 10 minutes per game and was a significant contributor, averaging 5.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 0.6 blocks per game, that last mark being second on the team despite his being 7th in minutes. Among regular rotation players, Manley easily had the highest blocked shot percentage at 7.1%. His offense was very good as well; Manley led all scholarship players in field goal percentage. He displayed good touch on hook shots and jumpers out to 15 feet, excellent post moves, skill on tough layups, and even the occasional rim-run. His stamina is definitely a work in progress, most evident on those rim runs, because after every one he was visibly wiped out. Even taking that into account, however, Manley was a sparkplug for the Tar Heels throughout the season.

Manley burst onto the scene early with his season’s lone double-double against Bucknell, but for my money, his best performance came against Tennessee. Against a quality opponent, much like Tony Bradley the year before him, he showed up in crunch time and helped his team pull out a tough win against the Volunteers, finishing with 10 points and 8 rebounds. The season was littered with performances like this, though they weren’t as frequent as we would have liked, but as Manley continues to grow in Chapel Hill, and particularly work on his conditioning, hopefully performances like this will become commonplace.