Ethan Happ: The CBB Star with an NBA Future Even Though He Can't Shoot

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterDecember 4, 2017

Wisconsin's Ethan Happ (22) and Xavier's Kaiser Gates during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Andy Manis/Associated Press

Hours before Wisconsin tipped off at the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City two weeks ago, an NBA scout was asked about Badgers star Ethan Happ and quickly responded: "I'd like to see him make a jump shot."

The conversation abruptly ended at that.

Until this season, that wasn't happening because Happ did not even try to shoot a jumper. He made just two baskets outside the paint his first two seasons in Madison, yet he was still a scorer (14.0 points per game as a redshirt sophomore) and even an All-American (Associated Press third team in 2016-17).

That makes him an oddity in the current era of stretch 4s and positionless basketball, where every team is trying to fill lineups with all shooters and every big man wants to play like a guard.

Happ is all elbows, pivot feet and post moves. His game is an ode to Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, an expert in the ways of scoring with his back to the basket.

His productivity is hard to ignore, but so too is the lack of a jumper. If he could shoot, it would be a lot easier for NBA personnel men to give their seal of approval. Instead, scouts are left trying to decide if the good outweighs the absent.

How he got here—a 21-year-old redshirt junior without a jump shot—has to be a throwback to the olden days when coaches took the tall kids, put them inside and didn't let them dribble the ball or shoot, right?


Happ's game is unorthodox, and his path to "post master" is even stranger.

"I grew up being a point guard and definitely shot a lot of jumpers and threes," Happ said.

That was his position until his sophomore season of high school when he shot up from 6'2" to 6'6" and moved inside. (He's now 6'10".) Happ still was allowed to bring the ball up the floor, but the focus of his game shifted mostly from the perimeter to the blocks. That's where he was needed when he got to Wisconsin.

After redshirting as a freshman because his minutes would have been limited behind 2015 National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, Happ found his niche as a post-up scorer in Bo Ryan's swing offense. He averaged 12.4 points per game as a redshirt freshman, developing a reputation for his quick spin moves in the post and his sneaky interior defense. He tallied 1.8 steals per game as both a freshman and sophomore, ranking 20th nationally and 22nd in steals rate, respectively, according to KenPom.com. He's the only player 6'9" or taller to rank in the top 20 in that category in Ken Pomeroy's entire database, which goes back to 2004.

Happ played linebacker in football growing up in Taylor Ridge, Illinois, and it's apparent in the way he defends away from the ball. In help defense or pick-and-roll coverage, he sits back and assesses the situation, not overcommitting one way or the other.

"That comes from playing out in the backyard just two-on-two football," Happ said. "I try to bait them into throwing something so you can pick it off."

The way Happ defends in the post is like a guard, using his feet and quickness instead of his strength to take away angles and not let opposing bigs get comfortable. Happ employed this strategy last week against Virginia's Jack Salt, who at 250 pounds outweighs Happ by 15 pounds, but that becomes a non-factor when he cannot get the ball or engage Happ in a low-post wrestling match.

"He's not one of those bigs that just lays on ya and tries to overpower ya," Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. "He's constantly moving and shifting and trying to play off your balance, off your weight distribution. He's a moving target. He's a little harder to pin and find sometimes."

This defensive sneakiness and awareness are what piques NBA scouts' interests.

"There's always a need for guys who are versatile defensively, and he definitely is that," an NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "There should probably never be an assumption that he's going to be some sort of great player, but the league, especially in such an offensive era that we're in now, you need versatile defenders, and he's definitely that.

"He can guard his man one-on-one in the post and he can guard out on the floor as well. He's going to need a situation that's kind of custom-made for his strengths and can cover for his weaknesses, but there's definitely a place for a guy who plays so hard and has been so productive in college."

The major weakness in Happ's game has obviously been the absence of a jump shot, although he never allowed for scouts to really pick that apart in previous years because he did not shoot in games. That has changed this season. Happ made his jumper a priority in the offseason, working on his mechanics with a shooting coach—the identity of whom he wishes to keep secret.

Happ made major changes to his form. He moved his guide hand from in front of the ball to the side. He had picked up the bad habit of resting the ball on his right shooting palm, so he moved the ball more to his fingertips. He also is shooting from the center of his body, bringing the ball up in front of his nose and forehead instead of near the right ear.

So far this season, he has made two of three two-pointers outside the paint. He came into this year having never attempted a three-pointer in college, and he's attempted four. He's yet to sink one in a game, but in warm-ups, he shows that he can at least make that shot, and his in-game form does not look terrible.

Happ's improved mechanics are also apparent at the free-throw line. After a rough start in the first two games (8-of-17), he's shot a solid 68.4 percent at the line since.

Happ is also adapting to becoming the primary scorer in Wisconsin's offense for the first time. He was the lone returning starter this season, and he's the focus of every defense Wisconsin faces. He sees a double-team almost every time he touches the ball, yet he's scoring a career-best 17.6 points per game and making a career-best 60.7 percent of his twos. He also is dishing a career-best 3.1 assists per game.

"He's special," UCLA coach Steve Alford said after Happ went for 19 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals against the Bruins. "He's one of those guys who is really hard to double. ... I don't know without doubling him, I don't know that you can take away his numbers, and when you double him, then you give him a bunch of assists because I think he's a terrific big-man passer."

Most players decide what they're going to do before they catch the ball. Happ is always assessing the situation, and the game has slowed down for him as he's aged.

"I was a pitcher, and it taught me patience," Happ said. "If you speed up, things go south quick. So especially in the post, you have to take your time and be kind of methodical and not rushing any decisions.

"Now in the post, I don't really look at my guy often. I try to feel him with my body and then look at the other four guys to see who is open or who is cutting."

Happ also used to play quarterback, and that's apparent in the way he reads defenses. Wisconsin runs so much of its offense through him in the post, because not only is he an efficient scorer from the blocks, his post touches are the best way to create open shots for his teammates. If a defender on the opposite side of the floor takes one step in the wrong direction—as Baylor's Tristan Clark did in the clip below—Happ sees it and has the passing touch to deliver the ball on target from tricky angles.

"He's a matchup problem because he does find people and he's very unselfish and his vision is good," Gard said. "His feel for the game is good. I think his decision-making and pace and play has gotten better. He doesn't rush as much as he used to when he was younger."

Happ's ability to pass the ball is another reason he will be desirable to some NBA teams. There has been a shift, in both the pros and college, to searching for playmaking big men instead of just a big man who can stretch the floor.

"He'll be able to roll and he can pass out of the pick-and-roll," a scout said.

This is the kind of skill that has made Draymond Green so valuable, especially when paired with Steph Curry in the pick-and-roll. If Green's defender leaves him, Curry finds Green in the middle of the floor and he's able to make another quick pass to an open teammate. When a help defender is on an island trying to stop Happ, he makes him pay.


Another NBA scout, who would categorically belong in the doubter group when it comes to Happ, recently visited Madison to evaluate the big man. Happ checked every box in terms of intangibles.

"I see him as being a competitive guy with a high basketball IQ that really knows and understands what works for him and what he needs to do to help his team win," the scout said. But as he processed what kind of NBA player Happ could be, it was hard to look past the jumper.

"He reminds me of [Domantas] Sabonis a lot, but Sabonis at least showed the potential to make a jump shot when he was in college, whereas Happ has yet to show that," the scout said. "It didn't look half bad as far as the fluidity of it, but you could obviously tell he's not comfortable doing it. I'm not saying it's not possible; it's just a little odd it hasn't come yet."

But is it a necessity?

Another scout pointed to the success of Golden State defensive specialist Jordan Bell, who rarely shot jumpers in college, but the Warriors couldn't care less.

"He's a defensive player and he can do things defensively that not a lot of guys can do," the scout said. "He can block shots, he can run the floor, he can pass, but if he was on a team that needed him to shoot, then he wouldn't look as good as he looks now. It's all about knowing who you are and then being able to apply who you are to each individual prospect.

"Can Houston absorb an Ethan Happ? Yeah, probably. I mean, gee-whiz, they have all these great players they would put around him, and he can just run the floor and dive in the middle pick-and-roll and get offensive rebounds. But a team that needs scoring off the bench, he probably wouldn't work."

Happ knows the perception, and while he's trying to change that, he's also aware that not every player in the NBA has to be a scorer.

"There's not a lot of guys that can take any shot they want on the court in the league," he said. "There's maybe one or two on every team, and everyone else is basically a role player. We'll see how this next year or two plays out, but as of right now, that's how I see myself."

That sort of self-awareness is not always common when it comes to draft prospects. Players often struggle when they have to make the leap from one level to the next—whether it's high school to college or college to pros—and go from being the star to just a guy.

Happ was willing to redshirt as a freshman at Wisconsin and aspires to be a hustling role player in the NBA.

"He's one of the hardest-playing players I've ever been around," Gard said. "He puts it all out there every game. Practices the same way."

As NBA scouts leave Wisconsin games this season, their scouting report on Happ will look something like this: defends, passes, handles the ball, scores in the paint and plays really hard. 

He cannot shoot jump shots—yet.

So what?

          

C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter @CJMooreHoops.

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