Free State High senior guard Evan Manning maturing nicely

Watching a high school athlete get a taste of varsity competition as a sophomore, and then returning to the same gymnasium two years that seem like a blink later to see him again made for an interesting exercise.

Free State High senior guard Evan Manning plays with the same absence of ego, but now mixes it with an abundance of confidence.

As a sophomore, Manning’s feel for the game was evident, but he didn’t seem convinced he belonged yet. Unsure of his jumper, a little reluctant to put the defense on its heels, Manning did his best to set up teammates and showed signs of having the makings of a solid, starting varsity point guard.

Given his good head for the game and passion to play it the right way, you had to figure he would blossom, but this good, this quickly?

A 6-foot-1, 165-pound senior, Manning put his understated signature all over Free State’s 65-54 home-court victory Tuesday night against Shawnee Mission West. Playing with a subtly aggressive style, he totaled 18 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four steals.

“Evan was great tonight,” Free State coach Chuck Law said. “Without Evan, we might have lost the game.”

Manning had 11 points and three steals in leading the Firebirds to a 22-12 advantage at the end of the first quarter, but that didn’t inspire him to seek to pad his scoring totals. He took his opportunities when they were there on a night he showed myriad methods of scoring and facilitating.

Twice, he drove the baseline hard and fired passes to a wide-open teammate in the opposite corner for three-point shots. He zipped one no-look, bullet pass to the post that almost was converted and he scored an old-fashioned three-point play on a relentless drive he finished with an up-and under. It called to mind recent drives of Kansas University senior guard Tyrel Reed. In some ways, Manning’s growth as a high school guard has followed a similar path as Reed’s in college.

Manning, who still has a lot of filling out to do physically, is an ideal candidate for prep school, as was former Free State and current KU guard Brady Morningstar. Manning said he plans to attend New Hampton, a boarding school in New Hampshire where Morningstar spent a year.

Manning’s a playmaker first, a scorer second.

“Evan played an awesome game on Friday night (against Olathe Northwest) and didn’t score a point,” Law said. “He’s a great leader and a great communicator. And he’s so great at organizing and bringing guys together. And when he goes out and gets you 18 points, that’s just a huge added bonus.”

Manning teamed with Eric Watson for the evening’s most crowd-pleasing play. Just a few dribbles past the half-court line, from the right side, Manning delivered a high pass to the left of the rim for Watson, who banked it in and was fouled, a play that sapped the life out of the visitors’ late run.

“Definitely not an easy catch,” Manning said. “The catch is the hardest part, I’d say. I mean, finishing, concentrating, finishing with the foul. That was a good play. It was a big momentum boost.”

And it was a nice finishing touch to a big night for the blossoming senior.