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While Syracuse remains dancing as March Madness begins, it’s hard not to look ahead at what the 2018-19 edition of the Orange basketball team could be. That’s a squad with plenty of promise in the form of a bevy of returning talent and a strong incoming recruiting class, but one concern is the center position. It’s a somewhat tenuous situation that could be addressed with another addition to the roster.

Assessing things, it is clear junior Paschal Chukwu made some strides this season but too often the Orange were playing 4-on-5 on offense because of Chukwu’s limited skillset.  Freshman Bourama Sidibe dealt with crippling tendinitis in his left knee that severely limited his mobility and effectiveness. He flashed a lot of ability, despite essentially playing on one leg, including a monster double-double performance at Pitt in January, but he faces surgery after the season.  

Chukwu and Sidibe are question marks inside but a possible answer has emerged in Valdir Manuel, a 6-foot-9, 225 pounder out of The Patrick School in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The Patrick School is an annual powerhouse that has churned out a lot of top-notch talent through the years, including NBA star Kyrie Irving and Kentucky center Nick Richards.  

Syracuse offered Manuel a few weeks ago, and he quickly listed SU in his final four choices, along with Seton Hall, Illinois, and Wake Forest. Manuel, a native of Angola, has not announced a timetable for his college decision but doesn’t seem to be in a rush. Expectations are that he will take visits this spring and I expect Syracuse to be very much in the mix to land him.

Recently I had the opportunity to check out two of Manuel’s games, both against very solid competition in the Union County, New Jersey Tournament semifinals and finals, and my overall impression of him was very positive. The semifinal was against St. Mary’s of Elizabeth and the final was against a loaded Roselle Catholic squad, boasting 2018 McDonald’s All-American power forward Naz Reid, plus 2019 wing and Syracuse target, the very impressive and athletic Kahlil Whitney.

Manuel looks the part of a guy who can perform at the next level. Blessed with long arms and a solid frame, Manuel displays offensive versatility and skills, with tremendous upside. Manuel has a few go-to moves around the hoop. One thing that Syracuse has been lacking in recent years is a back-to-the-basket post presence. In both games, Manuel showed an ability to establish position on either low block, make himself available and a target for entry passes and then do damage. 

His favorite move is a baby hook that he was adept at breaking out over either shoulder.  Manuel utilizes his wingspan and strength to carve out space and get his shot off. Once in a while Valdir would break out a drop step, but that was not a big part of his arsenal. He did use an assortment of ball fakes and it’s obvious he’s been well-coached.

Syracuse fans have been frustrated in recent years watching so many missed layups and dunks but there should be no such concerns with Valdir. When he dunked, he often did so with two hands and with authority. He was usually successful trying to finish around the rim, even through contact. He’s got a great feel in the post. While clearly not a superior athlete or leaper, Manuel showed enough athleticism to indicate he will be impactful at the next level.  

In both games, Manuel displayed solid hands and impressive patience, unselfishness, and vision. If his path to the basket was not clear or if he was double-teamed, Manuel would find an open teammate. Very rarely did he look like he was forcing the issue. For a young player with developing skills, it was readily apparent that Manuel is already an adept passer. He has excellent timing on his passes from a variety of spots on the floor.

Perhaps most impressively and unexpected for a guy his size is Manuel’s ability to pick and pop from outside the arc. In both games he drained several 3-pointers, a few of them from very long range. His release isn’t particularly quick and he does need room and time to get his shot off. His shooting form was fine both from the floor and the free throw line, though the release on his jumper was a bit low.

In both games, Valdir’s handle was nothing to write home about but he can dribble pretty well and is never afraid to put the ball on the floor. A few times an outlet pass wasn’t there and Manuel took the ball up to halfcourt before finding a teammate. Sometimes that led to a careless turnover. One time in particular it was quite an adventure, as Manuel took the ball awkwardly to halfcourt only to run squarely into Reid, who is built like an NFL defensive end. Needless to say, that didn’t end well, with Valdir ending up in a heap on the floor. Ouch.  

Naz Reid is a mountain of a man and will be a terror next season in the SEC. Interestingly enough, Reid’s passing was particularly impressive. Reid passes better than a lot of guards. Wow. But I digress.

Back to Valdir. Defensively, Manuel needs a lot of work. He blocked a few shots against smaller players but did not show the instincts or timing needed to be a great shot blocker.  I’m not sure Manuel is the ideal anchor for the 2-3 zone but it would be a stretch to use him on the wing. He clearly needs to be coached up and perhaps he can develop into a rim protector. One thing that was quite telling was when The Patrick School pressed, they replaced Manuel with gangly 7-foot-1 Majur Majak, who is clearly a project at this juncture but the better shot blocker of the two.

Manuel’s footwork on defense was decent but nothing special. If I weren’t watching Manuel intently, I’m not sure I would’ve noticed his defense, apart from a few plays here and there, usually when a quicker player blew by him. Against Roselle, he didn’t guard Naz Reid, which was probably a wise strategy. His effort was mediocre on that end but not even close to Taurean Thompson level bad.  

On the glass, Manuel put up very solid numbers in both games; by my count he had a combined 21 rebounds. Solid. Still, I wouldn’t say I came away extremely impressed.  Manuel did show good hands but rarely did he grab a rebound in traffic that caught my attention. He didn’t hit the offensive glass, apart from a few easy opportunities. I also was disappointed to find out that he was averaging less than four rebounds-per-game when these games took place a couple weeks ago. At his size and length, Manuel should be posting better rebounding numbers than that. 

Last spring and summer, Manuel played with 2018 Orange commit Jalen Carey on the NJ Playaz AAU team, averaging 9.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG and 1.6 BPG in 14 games on the talent-laden EYBL circuit. Having that history and familiarity with Carey certainly can’t hurt Syracuse’s chances during this recruitment.

As I said, my overall impression watching Manuel was positive. He’s got a solid base of skills and is capable of providing solid depth for Syracuse next year if SU is fortunate enough to land him. Sure there are warts to his game, especially on the defensive end, but with his post moves and ability to step out and drain a jumper, Manuel would be a great get.  

As Syracuse fans know only too well, depth is a very good thing. Manuel could provide that next season and evolve into an impact player down the road.

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