UNC Basketball: Sterling Manley poised for breakout season?

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 18: Sterling Manley
CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 18: Sterling Manley /

Can Sterling Manley follow the trend of UNC sophomores before him?

Sterling Manley quietly had an excellent freshman season for the North Carolina Tar Heels.

The 6-foot-11, 240-pound power forward came off the bench in each of the Tar Heels’ 37 games last season, and eventually established himself as the team’s best traditional post player. Fellow freshmen Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman contributed, too, but it was Manley who put separation between himself and the rest of the pack by season’s end.

Despite playing just 10 minutes per game, Manley averaged 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds during his rookie campaign in Chapel Hill. He hit better than 56 percent of his shots from the floor – tops on the team among players who averaged at least 1.5 minutes per game – and connected on nearly 70 percent of his free throw attempts.

And while those numbers aren’t eye-popping, they are efficient, particularly for a first-year player in the nation’s best basketball conference. He will, however, have to build on the success of his freshman season, and improve, in order to get the kind of minutes that he wants, and become the type of front court player that Roy Williams likes to have in his lineup.

Despite a good report card from Manley in year one, many fans continue to doubt his ability and potential. Some are still stuck on the fact that he wasn’t a four or five-star prospect coming out of high school. And others simply choose to write off a young player who doesn’t come into college and make a substantial impact from day one.

But underestimating Manley at this point could be quite foolish, and most definitely premature.

Consider this: Manley’s freshman numbers were comparable – and in many cases more favorable – than some of the most beloved and impactful big men in the Roy Williams era.

Take John Henson, for example, who teamed up with Tyler Zeller to form one of the most formidable UNC front courts of the past 15 years. Henson averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as a freshman, shooting 49 percent on the season. A year later, he averaged a double-double with 11.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor.

During Henson’s final season at North Carolina in 2012, a freshman by the name of James Michael McAdoo came along and impressed Tar Heel fans with his energy and athleticism off the bench. There was ample hype surrounding the young big man, despite having season averages of just 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game on 43 percent shooting. The following season, McAdoo scored 14.4 points per game, hit 45 percent of his shots and pulled down 7.3 rebounds.

Brice Johnson put together one of the best seasons of any player in the Roy Williams era as a senior, averaging a double-double and being named first team All-American. His numbers as a freshman, though, were very similar to Henson and McAdoo. Johnson recorded 5.4 points and 3.2 rebounds per game during his first season in Chapel Hill, and at times, looked lost on the court. As a sophomore, though, Johnson increased his scoring to 10.3 points per game and improved his field goal percentage from 51 to 57. He pulled down nearly twice as many rebounds as the prior year, too.

Kennedy Meeks’ first season at UNC wasn’t unlike those before him, averaging 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game on 55 percent shooting. By year two, though, Meeks was scoring more than 11 points per game and shooting better than 56 percent from the floor. He also increased his rebounding average to 7.3 per game, second only to Brice Johnson that season.

It’s worth noting that each of these players, with the exception of Brice Johnson, played at least 15 minutes per game in their freshman seasons. Manley averaged exactly 10 minutes per game last season while compiling very comparable stats.

The biggest obstacle that I see standing in Manley’s way this season has nothing to do with his skill or ability, but about the amount of minutes he’ll be able to absorb in the Tar Heels’ lineup.

If Roy Williams decides to once again play small ball – which certainly wouldn’t be his desired choice, but may be necessary due to the makeup of the team – then Manley’s playing time will obviously suffer. The good news for Manley, though, is that his efficacy on the court over the next few months will greatly impact that decision.

And regardless of Williams’ decision and the subsequent impact that it has on Manley’s playing time, expect an increase in efficiency when he is on the court. He’s a talented player with a lot of potential and a year of experience under his belt. One way or another, North Carolina fans should expect an uptick in Manley’s play this season.

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So, while it may be easier and more expeditious to simply write Manley off after just one season, it’s also much more short-sighted and far less thought-provoking.