Twenty games into his freshman year, Sterling Manley could be "that guy" for UNC men's basketball.
Theo Pinson thinks so, and he's played the role himself, so he should know. After the Tar Heels' 80-66 home win over Georgia Tech on Saturday, Pinson said Manley could be "that guy” for UNC — the guy who provides a spark off the bench.
Manley finished 4-for-4 (three of them dunks) for nine points and three rebounds in nine first-half minutes. He saw three more minutes in the second half before subbing out with 13:04 left.
“I definitely want to be that guy,” Manley said after UNC's fourth straight ACC win. “That guy that gives a spark and keeps the train rolling.”
Manley came out before Saturday's game with a new hairstyle, and his performance strengthened his claim as the team’s sixth man, a role he's battling for against fellow freshmen Jalek Felton and Garrison Brooks.
But his hair that drew comparisons to another former “that guy."
“I was just trying to be different,” Manley said. “I remember Isaiah Hicks did this last year, so I was like: let me try to do it a little differently.”
Manley resembled Hicks, the 2015-16 ACC Sixth Man of the Year, on the offensive glass as well. His two put-back dunks late in the first half jolted a Tar Heel team that was struggling to score against an aggressive Georgia Tech zone.
“I thought Manley was a huge lift in the first half,” Roy Williams said. “Rebounding was a big force for us, no question.”
The Tar Heels outrebounded Georgia Tech by 21, the second-biggest margin in ACC play thus far. Manley finished with just three, but those two offensive boards gave UNC the type of jolt it needed to create offense against that stingy zone.
The 6-foot-11 freshman’s performance was even more impressive considering his success came at the hands of Georgia Tech’s Ben Lammers, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
Lammers came into the game averaging 3.1 blocks per game, ninth-most in the nation. But Manley said he didn't buy into the hype.
“He hasn’t faced me,” Manley said. “He may do that to somebody else, but you’ve got to play me too. I put on my shorts just like him.”
So how has Manley gone from being lost in the shuffle of a recruiting class headlined by more highly-regarded players such as Jalek Felton and Garrison Brooks to staring down the best shot-blocker in the ACC?
“Just being more aggressive,” Manley said. “That’s all.”
Manley’s rebounding will be particularly key moving forward with UNC’s small starting lineup seemingly set to stay after four games — all wins.
“We’ve got enough scorers on the team,” Manley said. “I just knew I had to get on the boards and be active and give them an outlet when they needed an outlet.”
Rebounder, transition-starter, sixth man, shot-block neutralizer. “That guy” has a lot of titles. But, as of today, it seems “that guy” also has an identity.
His name is Sterling.
Theo Pinson (1) says freshman Sterling Manley is becoming "that guy" — a role he played for years off the UNC bench.
Sterling Manley (left) played four more minutes than Jalek Felton (right) in Saturday's win. The two freshmen are battling for UNC's sixth man role. | Photo by Alex Kormann