Is There Any Room for a Big Man Who Can't Shoot in Modern Basketball?

Is There Any Room for a Big Man Who Can't Shoot in Modern Basketball?

Ethan Happ (#22) of the Wisconsin Badgers shoots the ball over Leron Black (#12) of the Illinois Fighting Illini at State Farm Center on Feb. 8, 2018, in Champaign, Illinois.

SourceMichael Hickey/Getty

Why you should care

Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ is a big man without a jump shot, but he does everything else.

Early in the second half of the Wisconsin Badgers’ exhibition game against Northern Iowa last November, center Ethan Happ took his place at the top of the key and drained a three-point shot. His teammates on the bench went wild, as if Happ had just sunk the winning basket in the Big Ten conference tournament. Most any college basketball player’s arsenal includes the three-pointer as a standard shot. But for the Badgers’ big man, it’s rare enough to throw a party.

One of the most effective players in college hoops, Happ is something of a basketball dinosaur: A big man who butters his bread in the paint. In the modern NBA, where players at all positions are encouraged to become proficient at raining down threes, is there a place for the 6-foot-10, 230-pound center who made just 1-of-11 threes in three college seasons?

Happ set out to answer the question when he declared for the NBA draft in April. The reply wasn’t what he wanted to hear. Happ worked out for several teams, but he wasn’t invited to the NBA combine with the top prospects, and in late May he decided to return to Madison for his senior year a changed man. He carries his humbling dalliance with the NBA with him and hopes to imbue his teammates with how special it is to play at Wisconsin.

“At the workouts, you talk to a bunch of different players from around the country, and they tell horror stories about their program, how they’re treated or their lack of chemistry,” Happ says. “I just feel grateful that we’re all so close at Wisconsin. I have gratitude toward the situation we were in last year; even though it was a bad one, we still had each other, and I think that carries over into this year.”

He’s going to go down as one of the best who’s ever played, statistically.

Wisconsin coach Greg Gard

Though he doesn’t consider himself a “prankster,” Happ enjoys scaring his teammates and is currently working on a compilation video of his most successful attempts. He also has multiple pregame superstitions, from eating and drinking the same thing to tying and re-tying his shoes the same way. And when he’s not on the court or in the gym, Happ relaxes with his girlfriend, Jordan, and their mini Aussiedoodle, Zoey, which Happ calls his “firstborn.”

Last year the Badgers missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 19 seasons, a stunning blow Happ calls a “traumatic event” shared among the team. And the pieces of his game he’s been refining for the NBA will also be useful to a Badgers team hellbent on returning to the tournament this March. Specifically, Happ wants to improve his free-throw percentage (career 56 percent) and mid-range shot, not to mention adding regular threes to his repertoire. To that end, this summer he worked closely with trainer Noah LaRoche, who counts the NBA’s Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook among his clients.

“Noah is a great skills trainer, but where he really helps is mentally,” says Happ. “He works with a lot of great NBA players, and he felt confident that I can play at the next level, regardless of if I have the shot or not.” ESPN college basketball analyst Dan Dakich says Happ needs to add jump hooks, baseline jump shots and floaters to his game — and, above all, touch. “He may make the NBA regardless of where he is in terms of touch,” says Dakich, “but if I’m a general manager, the thing they talk about is he’s got to add shooting touch to his already really nice inside arsenal.”

When asked if scouts will see a dramatic improvement in his shooting and his ability to space the floor at the NBA level, Happ bristles slightly. “They’ll just have to find out this season,” he says. “It’s not like I haven’t been in the gym.”

Sophomore teammate Brad Davison says Happ logs as much gym time as any Badger. “His work ethic really takes everyone’s game to the next level,” Davison says. Last year Happ led the Badgers in points (17.9 per game), rebounds (8.0), assists (3.7), blocks (1.1) and steals (1.5) — the nation’s only player to do so. Happ’s usage percentage (the plays in which a specific player is involved) has increased every season to a whopping 35.6 percent in his junior year. Not even Steph Curry topped 40 percent usage in college, but it may be on the table for Happ. “He’s going to go down as one of the best who’s ever played, statistically,” says Badgers head coach Greg Gard.

His team will not. Wisconsin ranked 262nd in three-point attempts per game last season, with 19.5, in an era when three-point-happy teams like Villanova dominate. Even Wisconsin — traditionally a low-scoring team known for its plodding style — does best when knocking down threes. During their Final Four runs in 2014 and 2015, the Badgers ranked in the top 25 nationally in three-point attempts, including 42 of 101 from Badger 7-footer Frank Kaminsky in 2015. He now plies his trade for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

After last year’s unusually poor finish, no one is expecting another Final Four — Wisconsin is unranked in early polls — but with Happ and 11 other returning players, some of whom weren’t healthy last year, the Badgers are more experienced than many of their rivals.

It starts with Happ, whose advanced footwork, quick hands and body control make him a matchup nightmare who constantly draws double teams. Those skills were honed in Milan, Illinois, a small town near Davenport, Iowa. His father, Randy, who played Divison III basketball, would print spreadsheets each summer containing drills for Ethan and his older brother, Eric, to practice.

It’s paying off now. Through three games, Happ has tried out his new three-point range just once. But if he can keep connecting, one of the nation’s most dominant players in the paint will see his draft stock — and the Badgers’ tournament seeding — rise accordingly.

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