Ethan Happ was never supposed to be this good.
“I got to college and all of a sudden I’m getting laughed at or shown up on the court by Frank (Kaminsky) or Sam (Dekker) or Nigel (Hayes),” he says of his redshirt season.
Nobody is laughing anymore. A third-year sophomore, Happ sat and watched the likes of Kaminsky, Dekker and Hayes in his first year on campus. Clearly, he learned a thing or two. Happ was good in 2015-16, but he’s great in 2016-17; the bruising Badger has been a revelation down low in Madison.But just how great? Happ was very much a part of Wisconsin’s ethos in 2014-15, when the Badgers had their best season in 75 years and came two points away from winning the national championship. But he didn’t suit up. Hayes and Bronson Koenig, while not as prominent as Kaminsky, played major roles on that runner-up squad. It was assumed that they would be Wisconsin’s alpha dogs for the next two seasons.
Alpha dogs, perhaps. Both have been good during the past two years; ask a casual college basketball fan to name two Wisconsin players, and Hayes and Koenig will likely lead the list.
But this season, neither is Wisconsin’s best player. That title belongs to Happ.
The opposing scouting report on Happ isn’t complicated. Foes know exactly what he’s going to do. That doesn’t mean they can stop him.
Happ is eating opposing defenses alive inside. He rarely strays far from the paint, because he doesn’t need to. The crafty forward is averaging 12.7 points per game on 67.2 percent shooting this season; Happ only averages 24.4 minutes per contest. His per 40 numbers: 20.9 points, 15.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists. Happ’s per-40 assist mark is tied from the team lead. A reminder: he’s a 6-10 forward/center who never shoots from the outside.
Take a look at Happ’s per game stats, and you’d think something went haywire with the computers that spit them out. Not only does he lead the Badgers in assist rate as a de facto center, but he leads the team in steals, too; Happ averages 1.6 thefts per game. Another friendly reminder: the man is 6-10.
Happ has earned the title of “Wisconsin’s best player,” but here’s another, perhaps even more impressive one: “Smartest player in America.” Happ isn’t a bad athlete, but he won’t blow you away with his explosiveness. His anticipation and ability to understand angles, however, is unparalleled; it’s not as if the Badgers use a hyper-aggressive defensive scheme, and Happ is disrupting opposing offenses like a pesky guard. This system isn't tailor-made to pad steal totals. Wisconsin isn’t West Virginia.
On the offensive end, Happ doesn’t shoot from the outside, but he’s so lethal on the interior that he’s magnetic -- a human vacuum that sucks defenders away from their perimeter obligations. He’s the most effective spacing vehicle the Badgers have, which is quite impressive given the limitations of his game. Wisconsin scores 120.5 points per 100 possessions with Happ on the floor, which leads the team.
The most improved aspect of Happ’s game, by far, is his newfound passing ability. As a freshman, he assisted on 10.9 percent of Wisconsin’s baskets when he was on the floor; that number has skyrocketed to 24.1 this season. In 2015-16, defenses would send outside pressure Happ’s way and he would try to go one on two (or at times, three) against them.
In 2016-17, he’s whipping bullets all over the floor to wide-open, salivating Badger shooters. Wisconsin ranks 77 spots higher in offensive efficiency than it did at the end of last season, and Happ’s burgeoning playmaking ability is the biggest reason why. The personnel is nearly identical.
"I think he’s getting better because his confidence is growing," Greg Gard says. "But he was inconsistent at times [last season]. A lot of that was confidence-driven. I think right now, his experience from last year prohibits him from having a lot of ups and downs. He’s playing like a sophomore that has a year of experience under his belt."
Hayes and Koenig are both awesome players. Hayes does a little bit of everything; he can score on the block, pass, defend and rebound. Koenig runs the team, is the Badgers’ best outside shooter, and by all accounts, their locker room leader.
But Happ is just so undeniably dynamic. At first glance, he appears to be a destroyer of interior worlds that doesn’t do much else.
That’s selling him way, way short. Happ still wreaks havoc in the paint, but this season, he’s added nuance to his arsenal. Happ is dominating multiple facets of the game these days, and the Big Ten crown is very much up for grabs this year. Don’t be surprised to see Wisconsin snatch it.