Sterling Manley had a boring summer.
The sophomore spent the entire offseason working out and taking classes in Chapel Hill.
Maybe Manley didn’t take vacation time because the Lakers supporter (“I’m a LeBron fan,” he said) isn’t welcome back in his home of Pickerington, Ohio, a small town deep in Cavaliers territory.
Or maybe it’s just because he’s seen what hard work does to UNC big men, and he wants to be the next to make the jump from role player to national star.
“There’s no way in our system that you can’t make a jump,” Manley said Wednesday. “So there’s no doubt my goal is to make a big jump, and you’ll see that as the season starts.”
In a limited role last season as the first or second guy off the bench, Manley averaged 10 minutes, 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per game while shooting a team-best 56.6% from the field.
Those first-year numbers are strikingly similar to a former Tar Heel legend whose leap Manley is trying to emulate this season.
In Brice Johnson’s 2012-13 freshman season, the eventual first-team All-American averaged 10.6 minutes, 5.4 points and 3.2 rebounds per game with a 51.1 FG %.
Just like last year’s team, Johnson’s freshman season ended with a second-round loss in the NCAA Tournament.
How does Manley feel about having a more efficient first season than an eventual first-round NBA draft pick?
“I don’t really look into the stats or anything like that,” Manley said. “One thing I do know is how they prepare and how Coach Williams coaches. How they prepare, there’s no way you can’t make a jump.”
Manley has seen the way Tar Heel greats before him prepare.
And so that’s what he did this summer.
Manley’s main focuses were on strengthening his lower body, expanding his shot repertoire (mostly off the pick-and-roll) and working on his post physicality.
“I know last year we were missing a lot of inside presence,” Manley said. “That’s where it kind of hurt us.”
That lack of experience inside was perhaps never more obvious than in the team’s final game, a shocking 86-65 loss to Texas A&M.
In that game the Aggies’ forward tandem of Tyler Davis (“Let’s be honest, I’ve never played someone as relentless”) and Robert Williams (“His godly-gifted athleticism was a challenge for me”) combined for 26 points and 22 rebounds while missing only 2 shots between them.
Davis and Williams could seemingly choose post presence and shot selection at-will against Carolina freshmen Manley and Garrison Brooks, who looked out of place and outmatched all night.
While UNC’s All-ACC forward Luke Maye will likely be a preseason All-American selection, the 6-8 stretch four doesn’t do well with back-to-the-basket play on either end of the floor.
Paint defense, then, is a responsibility that will continue to fall to the lanky 6-10 Manley.
That second round loss (UNC’s earliest exit since 2013-14) was a tough pill to swallow for the defending national champions, but Manley said it has been serving a good purpose all along.
“Our motivation through the offseason?” Manley asked. “All you have to do is say Texas A&M, and you got it from there.”
That motivation drove Manley to push harder than he ever has this summer.
He’s also taken lessons from NBA players.
From LaMarcus Aldridge, he’s learned the pick-and-roll game; from Kevin Garnett, relentlessness; and from Tim Duncan, effective use of the backboard.
He’s also taken tips from UNC basketball alumni like Tyler Zeller, Tyler Hansbrough and Rasheed Wallace: advice on nutrition, game-planning and preparation.
Zeller has been especially impactful for Manley.
“He was just telling me how much potential I have and how he sees things in me that he doesn’t see in other people,” Manley said. “He said you may be able to take a little day off, but when you’re on the court, give it your all for that time.”
Manley will have to heed Zeller’s advice in order to get a starter’s minutes this season. A top-10 recruiting class headlined by potential top-pick Nassir Little, plus a senior trio of Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams, means Carolina will be stacked this year.
Manley, though, isn’t worried about playing time.
“I fit in well,” Manley said. “Our bigs are slim. The other positions are just going to have more subs, but for us, we’re going to have to be counted on when we step on that court.”
A year adjusting to Roy William’s hectic offensive pace will help Manley be much better prepared to run in transition.
Coming off two broken legs in high school, Manley’s poor conditioning restricted him from starting last season.
This time around, though, Manley says he’ll be ready.
As the season opener (Nov. 6 at Wofford) approaches, he thinks about his goals for the year: a deep run in the tournament and being better defensively as a shot blocker.
Manley had a simple summer, and he’s got a simple promise for Carolina fans.
“We will definitely not be coming out before that second week (of the NCAA Tournament) like we did last year,” Manley said. “I can promise you that.”