Ethan Happ and the Fan Rorschach Test

-Jim Root

When we released our Top 100 Player Rankings in October (boy, I don’t feel good linking to an article that puts Zion 37th – even I was too low at 20th), one of the more surprising critiques was on how highly we ranked Ethan Happ – including, most shockingly, from some Wisconsin fans. His game certainly isn’t flashy, but he’s been a phenomenally productive college player, and we felt (and still feel) that he is worthy of such a lofty ranking (reminder: we ranked strictly as college players for the 2018-19 season).

While watching Happ dissect Xavier in the paint on Tuesday night, I decided that, to me, he is a kind of Rorschach Test for gauging a fan’s perspective on basketball. In a way, Happ is the antithesis of the current wave of basketball: he’s a back-to-the-basket wizard who retains absolutely zero shooting gravity outside of five feet, shunning the spacing and shooting revolutions to instead teach a post move clinic to his oft-overmatched post defenders. For that reason (plus Wisconsin’s struggles last year), some might view him as more of a talented relic of the old game than the true star we at 3MW believe him to be. Look closer, and you’ll find a two-way weapon whose array of strengths make him the force powering the Badgers’ rebirth into a possible Big Ten contender. So what do you value on the basketball court? Can you appreciate a great player without ever seeing him in SportsCenter’s Top 10?

Among Happ’s many devalued talents, his post skills, passing, and defense are what stand out most, the first two of which make for a deadly combination. As basketball has changed, the true post player has mostly gone the way of the Blackberry and frosted tips, and it makes sense on a logical level. Very rarely is a player skilled enough to score consistently in post-up settings; relative to most three-point shooters, the points-per-possession math just doesn’t work. Happ, though, defies this logic. He’s a machine against single coverage, using a menagerie of spins, up-and-unders, half-hooks, and reverses to consistently free himself around the rim:

His footwork and ability to use the basket as a shield are uncanny, and this unusual skill allows Wisconsin to run a relatively anachronistic offense that often revolves around getting the ball to the low block.  

Almost every opposing coach ends up throwing a second defender his way, and that’s where his brilliant passing comes into play. Many talented post players have their one-on-one skills rendered useless by a complete inability to deal with double-teams; truly punishing a defense for this strategy requires vision and anticipation much more often associated with point guards running pick-and-roll. Happ needs to see where the help is coming from, anticipate how the defense will rotate based on that help, and throw an incisive pass that beats that rotation. Sometimes that’s simple:

But other times, it requires a cross-court look to be one step ahead of the defense and put a teammate in a spot to make a play:

Unfortunately, the true impact if his passing was lessened somewhat last year by the Badgers’ rash of injuries and subsequent dearth of offensive weapons. This year, though, the early returns on D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison look good, allowing Happ’s assist rate (percentage of team’s baskets assisted by that player while he’s on the court) to stand at an absurd (and admittedly unsustainable) 66.9% through two games. For reference – Trae Young led the country last year at 48.5%.

On the other end of the floor, Happ once again bucks the conventional trend, but he remains highly effective. Despite not being a true rim protector at 6’10, he does challenge and affect shots, and his mobility and tremendous anticipation allows him to shut down angles and generate mayhem. Possibly the most surprising aspect of Wisconsin’s season through two games is that Happ has yet to record a steal; he ranked 1st, 1st, and 4th in the Big Ten in steal rate during his first three campaigns.

The obvious flaw is at the free throw line, where Happ is a Freddy Krueger-esque nightmare. It’s especially harmful for his game given how often he gets fouled around the basket, and his failure to capitalize on those opportunities makes being an efficient player an uphill battle. Given how simple a free throw is (no defense, etc.), this is probably the easiest part of basketball to criticize from a fan’s perspective,which fuels the fire for Happ Haters. He generally makes up for this shortcoming with his brilliance in other facets, though.

All of this is to say: Ethan Happ is a tremendous basketball player, if not in the current “conventional” sense of the term. However, the essence of this article wasn’t really meant to be a referendum on Happ individually. Instead, my goal was more to highlight that a player who is lacking in today’s most “popular” basketball skills (notably: shooting, top-shelf athleticism) can still be a bona fide star in the right setting. Happ just happens to be the quintessential example of that, so he became the embodiment. The lack of shooting/athleticism will certainly limit him (and others of his ilk) in pursuit of an NBA career, but that should absolutely not detract from how great he has been and will continue to be in college.

Different teams win in different ways, and different players succeed with different skillsets. Happ exemplifies this, and if you cannot or will not appreciate the subtler aspects of his game and how they make him elite, then we likely won’t fully see eye-to-eye on college hoops as a whole.