MADISON, Wis. — A high level of pride swells within Randy Happ when he watches his son perform tasks on the basketball court that most 6-foot-10 forwards simply can’t complete. When Ethan Happ leads the fast break and beats defensive traps as Wisconsin’s de facto point guard, Randy can’t help but smile about the years it took to achieve such skill.
When Happ catches a pass on the perimeter, dribbles between his legs, backs down a post defender, drops the ball off behind his back and spins for a reverse layup or a no-look assist, it comes as no surprise to Randy. He remembers all the summer hours Ethan and his older brother spent drilling on the family’s 57-foot driveway in Milan, Ill., with Randy instructing them to finish a series of ball-handling workouts printed on a sheet of paper.
Left hand, right hand, behind the back, between the legs. Repeat.
“The majority of stuff we did, whether it would be ball handling or shooting and layups, it was twice as many with the off hand as it was with the good hand,” Randy Happ told Land of 10. “He did a massive amount of dribbling drills. But not just at home. When he got into grade school and high school, he continued to work on it all the time.”
Randy, who played basketball at Division III North Central College in Naperville, Ill., and coached Ethan until sixth grade, describes him as “old school,” a throwback to the NBA days when big men could do a little bit of everything. He mentions forward Bob Love, a three-time NBA all-star who played for the Chicago Bulls in the 1960s and ’70s. Wisconsin assistant coach Howard Moore likens Happ’s versatility to Danny Manning, who led Kansas to the 1988 national championship.
What everyone can agree on is that these types of players don’t come along often. And all of Happ’s time in driveways and gyms has made him the most uniquely skilled big man in college basketball.
“I can’t look at anyone else in the country and see the type of player that I am,” Ethan Happ said. “I can’t be like, ‘Oh, he’s like me.’ Just because of my size, ball-handling ability and then being able to score in the post so effectively. That combination usually isn’t found in too many guys.”
Last season as a redshirt sophomore, Happ was the only player in the country to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals during conference play. He earned third-team Associated Press All-America honors and has followed up that performance with an even better campaign.
Happ is the only major conference player averaging at least 16 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists per game this season. Over the last 20 years, only three Big Ten players have averaged those marks for an entire season. Each player earned Big Ten Player of the Year and consensus All-America honors: Ohio State’s Evan Turner (2010), Michigan State’s Draymond Green (2012) and Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan (2017).
Happ has reached such rarified territory by playing like a center and thinking like a guard. He played point guard through his freshman season at Rockridge High School, when he stood 6-2. By the time he returned for his sophomore season, he had grown to 6-6. Although the growth spurt put an end to his official point guard responsibilities, he still possessed a handle that made him difficult to stop. Happ grew to 6-8 by his senior season and is now 6-10.
“A lot of my basketball comes from me growing up playing point guard,” Happ said. “You’re seeing the floor, options for everyone else. That’s kind of what I do in the post is I’m trying to anticipate where a defensive guy is going to go and then who’s going to be open, where everyone’s going to be.”
Happ’s guard work has significantly benefitted his passing game, particularly as he has faced double-teams from opponents as the focal point of Wisconsin’s offense this season.
When he sees double teams, Happ generally does not panic. Instead, he scans the floor for an opening and a pinpoint pass that he can drop off in the lane to teammate Khalil Iverson for a dunk, or whip the ball to the opposite baseline to Brevin Pritzl for a 3-pointer. As a freshman, Happ tallied 44 assists and 76 turnovers. This season, Happ has recorded 83 assists and 65 turnovers.
“He draws so much attention that even when he doesn’t have the ball, guys’ heads turn sometimes,” Pritzl said. “That makes it easier for us. He does so much for us. We play through him in so many ways. His assists come when the double comes. He’s making the right read. But he still gets his because he’s such a talented scorer, and that’s what you want.”
Former Rockridge basketball coach Toby Whiteman said Happ faced a barrage of defensive traps, double-teams and triple-teams as the star player in his small Illinois conference. That forced Happ to adjust to the physicality and become a better student of the game to read angles and find teammates. Happ averaged 33 points and 15 rebounds as a senior to lead Rockridge to a 28-1 record and earn his second consecutive first-team Associated Press all-state honor.
“I felt bad for him in high school,” Whiteman said. “He just would get abused. There wasn’t a lot of protection for him. Ethan never got treated like a star. He would be double-teamed, triple-teamed. They’d be extremely physical with him. My comment most of the time was I guess they think that because he’s going to the Big Ten that he should be able to handle it. The problem is he’s not in the Big Ten right now. He’s playing high school basketball.”
Those moments did prepare Happ for what he would face entering this season. He was the only returning starter from a Wisconsin team that reached the Sweet 16. His supporting cast is full of inexperienced players, and the Badgers’ depth issues and offensive inconsistency have made Happ an even bigger target for double-teams whenever he approaches the paint. He has been forced to log more minutes than ever — nearly 30 per game — and take some of the point guard responsibilities off freshman Brad Davison, who has been hobbled by a left shoulder injury.
“I think he’s done a really good job of taking that extra load on his shoulders and carrying it,” Badgers forward Aaron Moesch said. “Everyone knows he’s going to be that guy, and he says, ‘Yeah, so what? Come at me. I’m going to find open teammates.’ The way he can be unselfish and still score is cool to watch.”
Added Davison: “He does it all for us. He’s our rock. He’s a guy everyone looks to. When he’s making plays, we all kind of get rolling. We find our confidence in him.”
Of course, Happ still has plenty of deficiencies on the floor that he continues to hone. Wisconsin’s coaching staff has preached patience to Happ when he sees double teams. Happ has shown a tendency to speed up and commit turnovers. He tallied 7 in games against Rutgers and Purdue this month.
Happ is shooting just 57.1 percent from the free-throw line, a number that hurts Wisconsin because he has attempted more foul shots than anyone on the team. He also has not utilized a mid-range game, and despite working on his 3-point shooting in the offseason, Happ has attempted only 4 this season — all misses.
“I think that when it’s opportune and I feel comfortable and in rhythm, then it’s going to show,” Happ said. “But at the same time, what coach tells you, it’s tough when we can get a possession with me in the post and have a kickout and a wide-open 3 for a shooter. So it’s tough to decide when to do it or not to do it.”
Whiteman said Happ made 3-pointers in high school. But he noted there are issues associated with maintaining shooting form while continuing to grow, which take time to sort out.
“It’s going to throw off a ton of your mechanics,” Whiteman said. “So now what you have to do is you’ve got to go right back in, and it’s almost like re-teaching yourself all over again. And that’s what he’s doing.
“He’s still young. I think the whole shooting thing is going to come. I know it’s going to come, given the years that everybody else has to perfect their shooting form. You know it’s going to happen because of his work ethic.”
Happ is a quintessential gym rat. It isn’t uncommon for him to be the last player in the Badgers’ practice gym shooting. Whenever Happ returns to Milan for a quick holiday break in the fall or winter, Whiteman knows he’ll hear from Happ. Whiteman recalls watching Happ play a mid-week night game for Wisconsin and then receiving a midnight text message asking if he could open the Rockridge High gym at 6 a.m. the next day.
“That’s been every year,” Whiteman said. “Whenever he’s back, he’s constantly getting in the gym. He just doesn’t take any time off. That was one of the things we told him in high school was like, ‘Man, you need to take a break.’ He’s a kid that just has a passion and a work ethic.”
Happ’s skill set has made him a matchup nightmare for opponents, but he also is difficult to peg as an NBA prospect. ESPN’s latest mock draft lists him being selected No. 49 overall in the second round by the Chicago Bulls — fitting, considering that was the team Randy grew up watching. The fact he does not possess a jump shot is considered a major weakness in his game for the next level. If he is not a first-round pick, there is no guaranteed contract, and it would make little sense for Happ to leave school after his junior season.
Moore said the league is evolving, and that there is a niche for a player of Happ’s caliber, who is willing to play defense, rebound, pass and score at the rim, so long as an organization likes what he brings to the table. He cites Draymond Green, the former Big Ten Player of the Year. Green shot 21 percent on 3-pointers in his rookie season and is a career 33 percent outside shooter. But he does so many other things well that he has become a key piece to the Golden State Warriors’ championship runs.
Happ insists he isn’t thinking about his pro prospects at this stage. But the most versatile big man in college basketball will work to achieve his dreams like he always has. And some day soon, he could have an opportunity to bring that old-school versatility he learned long ago to the NBA.
“I don’t know where the next level is going to be at for him,” Randy Happ said. “I hope there is some next level. If he can find a team that needs something like good defense and can help with the ball, and he’s a pretty good passer, I think it certainly will help him down there.
“He’s going to have to pick up the shooting, obviously, for that to happen. But I absolutely think ball handling and his court sense will help. Some of it’s a little bit rusty right now, but for the most part I think he does a good job of it.”