Before his senior season at Pickerton Central High in Ohio, Sterling Manley's basketball coach asked him where he wanted to play in college. Manley at the time wasn't a highly-sought prospect; he'd suffered cruel and poor injury misfortune – a broken right leg at the start of his junior year, and then a broken left leg before the start of his senior season.
He wasn't sure where he might wind up in college. Some schools that might have been intrigued by his talent, after all, never began to recruit him given his injuries. But when he considered that question about where he might like to play, Manley's answer came quickly, even if he wasn't necessarily serious: “North Carolina,” Manley told his coach.
“Just joking around,” Manley said. “Like, they'll never come to see me.”
Manley, the Tar Heels' 6-foot-11, 240-pound freshman forward, recounted the story here on Wednesday night, after UNC's 93-81 victory against Bucknell. He played only 17 minutes but, during those 17 minutes, he finished with 16 points, 13 rebounds, two blocked shots, and all the while looked nothing much like a player whose low recruiting profile suggested it might take years for him to contribute in a major way.
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“Pretty impressive,” UNC coach Roy Williams said, eying Manley's line in the box score.
Williams and his staff only learned of Manley after his senior year of high school had already started. They learned of him after his highlight tape made its way to the UNC basketball offices, where Steve Robinson, Williams' lead assistant, liked what he saw when he made time to watch it. The way Manley told it on Wednesday, Robinson “was, like, jumping out of his chair once he saw my film.”
It was an especially late start to a recruitment. By the time most major college basketball prospects begin their senior year of high school, many of them have already made their college choice. Almost all of them have been scouted and scrutinized, for years, during the exhausting and seemingly-endless summer circuit of AAU tournaments and all-star camps. Then there was Manley.
“Nobody knew what to expect,” said Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels' senior forward. “He's been out for so long. Played last year a little bit and he's a big player. He's shown promise in practice. He's doing (in games) what he's doing right now in practice.”
In Manley, UNC discovered something of an unmined commodity: a player with size, and potential, who'd received little fanfare in recruiting, largely because of his terrible injury luck. During his senior year of high school, Manley was ranked the 265th-best prospect in his class, according to 247sports.com. The same site ranked 62 other power forwards ahead of Manley.
And yet in his first college game, the Tar Heels' 86-69 victory against Northern Iowa on Friday, Manley narrowly missed finishing with a double-double. He needed only 13 minutes of playing time to secure one on Wednesday against Bucknell, and Manley's efficiency continued throughout his final four minutes on the court.
Manley's best attribute since his arrival at UNC, other than those that have come naturally to him, like his size, has likely been his ability to receive coaching, and his desire to please. Williams on Wednesday night shared a story illustrative of those characteristics. It was a story from one of Williams' visits to Ohio, where he watched one of Manley's high school games during his senior year.
“Went to see him play a game, and it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen,” Williams said. “He came running up to me after the game, after they'd been released from the locker room, and he was like a little puppy dog, just like ‘How'd I do?’
“And I said, 'You've got to try to understand, you're going to need one thing,.' And he said, 'What?' And I rubbed my hand across his forehead. He didn't have one bead of sweat on him. I said, ‘You need to learn how to sweat, son.’”
And so Manley has received an education in sweating during his first months in college. Given his injury history, conditioning has been a challenge. Manley has yet to pass one of the three conditioning tests that Williams demands of his players, and until he does his playing time could be limited.
The test Manley hasn't passed is “this thing called the 12-minute run,” he said with a hint of dread, and humor, on Wednesday. To pass it, he must run six and a half laps around a track in 12 minutes.
“I'm close,” Manley said, but not close enough for Williams' taste.
“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.”
Outside of the running tests, Manley has so far – and again, it's early – exceeded all expectations, which, granted, have been considerably lower than they are, say, for Jalek Felton, the most decorated member of UNC's freshman class. Felton has had his memorable moments during his first two college games, as well, but UNC's most consistent, productive freshman has been Manley.
His early emergence, along with that of Garrison Brooks, another freshman who was a late addition to UNC's incoming class, has helped soothe concerns about where UNC would turn to for production in the post. That was the most imposing question facing the Tar Heels throughout the preseason, given the departure of all three of their interior players from a season ago.
The available opportunity intrigued Manley, entering this season. He has helped fill a void.
“Coach Williams never promised me anything, he just promised the opportunity,” Manley said. “So I said if I go in and just work my butt off … I'll get what I need.”
Manley has provided proof of that labor during the Tar Heels' first two games. Greater challenges are ahead – UNC takes its first road trip of the season next week, beginning with a game at Stanford on Monday – but Manley's early-season success has translated into confidence, which, in turn, has translated into the sort of thing he did on the court on Wednesday night.
Had Manley not wound up at UNC, he said he would have gone instead to Purdue or West Virginia or Xavier. Some of those schools had recruited him long before UNC began its pursuit, and those other schools, Manley said, treated him like a “best-kept secret kind of thing” because his injuries had either scared others away, or precluded other schools from even evaluating him.
But then Manley's highlight video wound up in UNC's basketball office. Robinson, the UNC assistant coach, pressed play. A week later, Robinson and Williams were on their way to Ohio, and not too long after that, after Manley had given his commitment to come to UNC, Williams was already promising him that he'd learn how to sweat.