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Front and Center: A Look At Valdir Manuel and Penn State’s Big Men

The cupboard is far from bare with the departure of Mike Watkins.

With the departure of Mike Watkins it appears that Penn State could use some low-post reinforcements. Thankfully there is help on the way. Valdir Manuel is the heir apparent to most of the minutes that will be vacated by Watkins and we’ll take a closer look at him today.

In all, the Lions have 4 players coming in that are generally considered 3-star recruits. Incoming freshmen D.J. Gordan (6-foot-6) and Caleb Dorsey (6-foot-8) have some height but likely will not be able to withstand the pounding on the block in their first year. Redshirt freshman Patrick Kelly (6-foot-7) sat out last year and has great skill for a player his size but he, too, will not be expected to play down low very much.

Abdou Tsimbila, a center prospect that was supposed to join the team last season, remains a question mark at best. His arrival a year ago was pushed back from the start of the season to mid-season due to eligibility requirements, but there has been little mention of him in recent months. With Patrick Chambers actively seeking low-post players it appears that he is either hedging his bet with Tsimbila or he knows that there will be a hole in the lineup and is trying to fill it.

Before anyone panics about the lack of depth on the low post, let’s remember that the team played the past few seasons with only Watkins and Harrar available for most of the time. Harrar was a much better player than he was given credit for until recently, since his work does not show up in the stat sheet. Watkins, statistically, was one of the better centers in the Big Ten last year.

Anyone that has followed the Black Shoe Diaries knows that we have been very understanding of Watkins’ situation, since it was made very difficult by his mental illness. There were times that others were piling on and we stuck up for him, writing articles explaining his challenge while others questioned his heart.

With that said, I would like to speak only in terms of how Watkins affected the basketball program, on the court. We all love him for his courage in dealing with his affliction in a public spotlight. Some of his down games were due to his struggles with bipolar disorder. Also, something people unfamiliar with the ailment may not realize, some of his great games, where he displayed an energy that no other player seemed to have, may have been affected by his disorder. Manic energy is a bi-product of bipolar disorder just as being sluggish and despondent are negative side-effects. It can give the person a fuel that is hard to describe and it feels great while it is happening, but then when the pendulum swings the other way, it is equally sensational on the downside.

I’ve spoken about my dealings with the same affliction so readers know I would be the last person to pile on Watkins. From a basketball perspective, however, there will be a certain amount of addition by subtraction now that Watkins is no longer with the program. For five years Pat Chambers dealt with his star center’s struggles and it had to have taken much more effort to coach Watkins than most players. It would be like a school teacher that has 15 students but has to spend an inordinate amount of time with one of the pupils. It can take time away from the other students and also be a distraction to the others, eroding away some of the effectiveness of the coaching that they have received.

We will never know just how much effort it took to keep Watkins eligible and on the court, but from the sporadic headlines and stories over the past five years, it was considerable. We also know that Watkins was not always available to play, at least not at a level that would help the team. In some ways, knowing that he had just about as many bad games as good, it makes his statistical averages that much more impressive. In other ways, his inconsistency must have made it terribly difficult to coach.

Again, a bipolar basketball player would be expected to alternate from hot to cold more so than a regular player. This isn’t a criticism of his character, just the product we saw on the court. With Watkins out for the stretch run of the NIT Championship, John Harrar proved adequate, as a freshman, to play center on a talented team. Harrar started the majority of the games as a sophomore and took over as the starter midway through the season last year, just when the Lions went on their 8-game Big Ten winning streak.

Harrar has the respect of the team and many fans and will be a solid center next season. There is reason to believe with Manuel, he will form a more consistent duo. Manuel, like most other centers, will not block as many shots as Watkins, though he did average more than two blocks per game last year with Harcum Junior College.

What Manuel brings to the table that Watkins did not is an outside shooting threat. When Manuel is on the court, with Seth Lundy playing a small power forward, the Lions can put five 3-point shooters on the court. Manuel shot 18 for 30 from 3-point territory in the games that have statistics available last year, 60%.

Here is some video of Manuel. It doesn’t show much competition but you get an idea of what his shot and body movement look like. Also, you may want to hit the mute button, because the music drops a couple of naughty words. Or one naughty word twice to be more accurate.

There is a lot that we don’t know about Manuel since he did not play against top competition for the past couple of years. That being said, he was recruited by Seton Hall and St. Johns before ultimately coming to Penn State. Illinois, Memphis, Rutgers and Temple all offered Manuel and Minnesota was very interested as well. The coaches have shown, through their interest, that he has upside.

Manuel came in at No. 7 in the list of top 2020 recruits. As you can see, he was also the largest body available at the top of the rankings. Manuel is listed at 6-foot-9 or 6-foot-10, depending on the publication, but his weight is solidly over 220 pounds. He will be ready to step right into the lineup. He also turns 21 in less than a month so his maturity level will be more like the junior that he will be, eligibility-wise, and not like a first year player.

There are some unknowns with Manuel but what we know, that he is big and has shown the ability to score inside and out, is what the team will need next season. His 69.2% free throw shooting last year should translate to the Division I level and anyone that averages 11.1 rebounds per game, as he did, has shown a willingness to compete.

With Harrar and Manuel on the low post the Lions will not look the same as with Harrar and Watkins. There will be times, when we remember Watkins at his best, that the duo will not measure up. Overall, if Harrar continues to find ways to contribute and Manuel plays as he has in recent years, Penn State may be better off than it was with Watkins.

One thing John Harrar brings to the table on a consistent basis is consistency. You know what you are getting, every night. If Manuel can provide a predictable skill set and get comfortable early in the non-conference schedule, the team could head into Big Ten play with a dominant pair of centers.