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Sterling Manley felt like a kid again last weekend in Tampa.

The 7-foot, 250-pound former North Carolina center was a big kid on the court at the Tampa Bay Pro Basketball Combine. He was smiling, laughing, enjoying basketball again – and standing out as a result.

Being on the court was fun, especially now that the 22-year-old Ohio native and Gophers’ target is finally healthy and getting the chance to showcase his talent.

“That was the biggest thing for me was playing basketball again,” the redshirt junior told the Star Tribune. “I don’t know what the future holds and what the next step is, but I know right now I’m having fun and getting better at basketball.”

New Gophers coach Ben Johnson and his staff have been in constant contact, which makes them as good a landing spot as any if Manley stays in school.

Manley, who entered the transfer portal in late March, averaged 4.6 points and 3.2 rebounds in 58 career games, but his breakout performance alongside NBA hopefuls last weekend proved that the knee issues sidelining him for most of his UNC career appear to be far in his rearview mirror.

Highlighted by a 24-point game in Saturday’s combine action, Manley averaged 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in four games. He measured 7-1 in shoes, with a 7-4 wingspan and displayed impressive athleticism with a 35-inch vertical leap.

An announcement on returning to college or pursuing a pro career is expected to come after Manley competes in the Myrtle Beach International Combine from June 13-15 in South Carolina.

After leading his combine team (alongside former Wisconsin big man and Lakeville native Nate Reuvers) to an undefeated record in Tampa, Manley spoke to the Star Tribune about his process.

Q: How did you like the inaugural Tampa Bay Pro Basketball Combine?

A: I was grateful to be able to showcase my skills and be around top talent. It was definitely good to prove I belonged there. They had me as an alternate. A couple guys dropped out, so they were able to put me in. All I needed was an opportunity. And once I got that opportunity and got a jersey, I was able to handle the rest.

Q: What have you enjoyed most about your conversations with the Gophers?

A: The biggest thing is just relationship building and seeing what the dynamics of the team is and seeing what job and opportunity they have for me in the route to become an NBA player and becoming a pro. I want to be around a good group of guys and coaching staff, and a good program that has a winning culture. A program that wants to win and has good player development. I think with Coach Johnson, [assistant coach Jason] Kemp and the other coaches and players at Minnesota, they’re trying to build that culture. He’s a new man on the job, so he has that chip on his shoulder and things he wants to accomplish and prove. But for me, it’s relationship building.

Q: Summer practice for college hoops teams start next Monday. Will you make an announcement soon?

A: Yes. Most likely some time probably after [the Myrtle Beach combine next week] a decision will be coming out, whether I will head the college route or continuing on this route. It’s just a blessing to continue to be having fun. I think the biggest thing is I hadn’t played regulation basketball like that for 40 or 48 minutes in a long time. Just putting on a jersey and playing with guys, with refs, I hadn’t really done for two years. Coming out here to Tampa and showing I’m healthy and can get up and down the floor with guys who have played 4-5 years of college basketball was a blessing.

Q: How tough was it to play just three games since that left knee surgery two years ago that had you miss the 2019-20 season?

A: I was cleared at the end of December and beginning of January for full go last season. There were a lot of guys at my position, and I was trying to get into shape and ease my way back into the lineup. It was tough because we had a lot of guys, but I was cleared to go. For me, it was continuing to stay healthy and get better whether I was going to play or not. I knew at the end of the season I would find a place to work out and continue to refine my skills.

Q: What do you want to accomplish if you return to college next season?

A: Going back to school, I won’t be a freshman. I’ll be a fifth-year guy. So, it’s not like I’ll have time to kind of dibble, dabble around. I need to go there, showcase my skills, win games, and have a good route and good path to showcase my skills and become an NBA player. An NBA guy. That’s what I want to be. Coach Kemp and Coach Johnson and the other coaches and players who have reached out to me have done a good job of talking to me and recruiting me. They’ve shown me the roster, their schemes, and their player development, what they’re trying to achieve along with the goals and aspirations I have as a player. It definitely has been good being in contact with [the Gophers].

Q: How many other schools have you been in contact with?

A: There are a few other schools I’ve been in communication with and weighing it with Minnesota and what they have to offer. Just going down the line and checking the boxes. I’ve been around the block. I’ve been to the top of the top. I know how things are done. I’ve been to places where things were promised and didn’t come to past. So, just being told the truth. Being real and transparent with everything that’s going on with each program [is important].

Q: What did you take away most about your time at North Carolina?

A: Getting a degree from the University of North Carolina you can take it to the bank and take it anywhere and people will turn around and give you an opportunity and a chance.

Being able to play under Roy Williams and being part of that fraternity that is UNC basketball can never be taken away. That’s a family. There are a number of guys in the NBA and working for NBA organizations and for all types of companies. Just being a part of that university and playing for that school and the connections I made can never be taken away.

Q: Where have you been working out this spring and summer?

A: Coming down to Miami is one of the best decisions of my life. I’m around pros with Ronnie Taylor a professional trainer down here in Miami. He has a really good circuit where we can get good [pickup games] and workouts. Being around guys like Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers … Being around this type of talent and being with [Taylor] has allowed me to tap into new things I didn’t know I had and fine tune things I already had.