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Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ Is College Basketball’s Latest Unicorn

At first glance, Ethan Happ, Wisconsin’s do-everything, still-growing sophomore forward, looks like a typical Wisconsin big. He’s the sort of player former coach Bo Ryan habitually used to recruit to Madison — this season’s Jon Leuer or Frank Kaminsky. Under-recruited in high school, he’s remarkably efficient within the arc, connecting on 58 percent of his two-point field goals, and is active on the defensive glass, hauling in a quarter of opponents’ misses. He appears to be a good college player but someone likely to crack an all-Big Ten first team — at most — at least once during his Badger career.

But Happ has transcended his role. Thanks to a growth spurt in high school that boosted him from a guard to a big, Happ is a multidimensional player who leads Wisconsin in offensive (6.3) and defensive (9.5) Box Plus/Minus, assist rate (22.9), steal rate (4.0) and block rate (4.5). He also tops all of DI in Box Plus/Minus (15.8). Using those rates as parameters within College Basketball Reference’s Player Season Finder, only two other players since 2009-10 have come close to matching Happ’s statistical output.1

Similarly, through the beginning of the Big Ten tournament, Happ was one of just three players the past eight seasons to post a defensive BPM of 10 (or more) and an offensive BPM of 6 (or more). The other two? Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns.


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But Wisconsin is not Kentucky, at least not this year. Towns and Davis led their Kentucky squads to Final Fours in their respective seasons with the school, but this season’s Badgers team has stumbled through February and early March, losing six of their last 10 games. Now they’re a No. 8 seed in the East Region. That sort of seeding isn’t usually indicative of a team with a player who possesses Happ’s unicornlike stat profile.

But having just one unicorn — no matter how efficiently he plays — isn’t necessarily enough, and that is partly why Wisconsin has struggled this season. Happ is in the midst of a statistically anomalous season, and yet the Badgers — the tournament’s 29th overall team — enter March looking gassed. They’ve lost six of their last 10 and have an 18 percent chance to make the Sweet 16.

I’ve watched hundreds of Happ’s plays this season, and what sticks out isn’t so much his offensive output, it’s how he mimics moves from other players and morphs those skill sets into his own. He then uses those moves to impact the game at different levels. Happ’s offense is entirely limited to attempts around the basket. His jump shot is non-existent — the ball knuckles as it leaves his hand without any rotation — and opponents realized midway through Big Ten play that the best way to defend Happ, and essentially shut down Wisconsin’s offensive flow, was to mix and match double teams (e.g., double on the catch or on the bounce).

This strategic change led to the ball often sticking too long on the block and Happ looking like a rec league player who had stumbled into a game full of pros that just needed an extra body (he scored in single digits three of those six losses).

That said, Happ is a bear for opponents to guard — a bundle of contained energy, he never stops moving. Whether setting a drag screen off a fast break, or bouncing on the balls of his feet as he roams from low block to the high post to the perimeter to set a pick, Happ is constantly seeking out the ideal angle that’ll give him even the slightest edge on the block. He scores .92 points per post up, which ranks 22nd nationally among other BCS conference forwards and centers (with at least 100 attempts, according to Synergy Sports), and he uses his vision to find fellow Badgers open on the perimeter or cutting through the middle. Since coach Greg Gard needs guards Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter to concentrate on scoring and stretching defenses with their combined 39 percent 3-point shooting, the Badgers invert their offense — it flows inside-out — to run plays through Happ. Happ makes a pass out of the block on 41 percent of his post-ups, and the squad has benefited from Happ’s touch, scoring 1.30 PPP following one of his dishes.

One move that he “borrowed” was used initially by Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, the Big Ten’s player of the year. According to Happ, Swanigan would “chin” the basketball, or bring it to his chin, and then elbow the defender’s chest to create separation for a jump hook. “It’s a very good move,” Happ said in an interview with FiveThirtyEight. “He did it to me this year. Most people put their shoulder down to create space, but when you use an elbow, a defender can’t stand his ground.” Or, if the defender is within the arc, take a charge.

This adaptability also impacts Happ’s defense. The Badgers hold opposing teams to .913 PPP, but what is most interesting about the squad’s defensive efficiency rating this season is its steal rate — 19.9 percent. The Big Ten squad is infamous for rarely generating turnovers, preferring to control the glass and use a man defense to hamstring opponents. But since Happ took the court, the team’s steal rate has skyrocketed (from 15.8 percent in Ryan’s final season as coach to a combined 19.2 percent during Happ’s two seasons on the court). According to Gard, Happ is “a gambler,” a trait he picked up during his redshirt season in 2014-15 when he matched up with Kaminsky daily in practice. “Frank would score on me so many times that I would have to adjust and learn how to do something different,” Happ said.

Happ is the only player taller than 6 feet 5 inches with a steal rate that ranks in Ken Pomeroy’s top 50. He showcases that same nimbleness by playing farther behind whoever he is guarding, which presents the illusion that man is open. As soon as the pass is thrown, Happ swoops around the opposing big to tap the ball away. That same speed helps when a ballhandler tries to take Happ off the dribble — per Synergy, Happ holds opponents to .63 points per isolation possession, which ranks within the nation’s 73rd percentile.

Happ is nowhere near the level of Towns or Davis — or even Swanigan. He is far from dominant on either side of the ball, and he can’t take complete control of a game and carry his team; whether he continues to build his game into something worthy of a lottery pick is unknown. But Happ is a basketball cipher, and what he has shown this season is just a glimpse of a player who is starting to realize the extent of his multifaceted skill set: “I knew I wasn’t a finished product, and that I would have to stay for three to four years to become a pro. I am just a really weird player.”

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CORRECTION (March 17, 10:15 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated Ethan Happ’s offensive and defensive Box Plus/Minus stats. His offensive BPM is 6.3, not 9.5. His defensive BPM is 9.5, not 15.9. As a result, the article also incorrectly identified Happ as one of three players over the past eight seasons to post a defensive BPM of 10 or more and an offensive BPM of 6 or more. That was only true through the beginning of the Big Ten Tournament.

Footnotes

  1. To measure how Happ compared to other bigs, the tool sifted through players with a usage rate of more than 25 percent, an assist rate and a defensive rebounding rate of at least 20 percent, and a block rate of at least 4.5 percent. The search was further sorted by field goal percentage, which would weed out any players that hadn’t scored enough to qualify for national rankings.

Matt Giles has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, BuzzFeed, and Salon.

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