If University of Wisconsin center Ethan Happ didn’t know how big the target on his back will be this basketball season, he was reminded about it time and again during his offseason travels.
Whether it was at the Under Armour All-America camp in Philadelphia or an NCAA seminar in Indianapolis, Happ heard the same questions from his fellow college players who had grown accustomed to seeing graduated stars Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter in UW’s lineup every March.
“People were like, ‘Who do you even have? It’s you coming back and who else is going to play?’ ” Happ said. “So that’s probably what the opposing coaching staffs are going to say is, first and foremost, don’t let Happ score and then we’ll figure out the rest. That’s probably the attention I’m going to get.”
As a returning third-team all-American, Happ can count on it.
The 6-foot-10 redshirt junior was five points away from leading UW’s NCAA Sweet 16 team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots last season, making him a collegiate version of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Now he’ll have to be even better. And he’ll have to do it without proven scorers like Koenig and Hayes spaced around him on the floor.
“He’s going to see double-teams,” said guard Matt Ferris, who arrived at UW with Happ in 2014. “Teams will be focusing their attention on him, which is something that the past two years he hasn’t really seen. Obviously, he’s been one of our better players, but now he is the man. Last year, you could argue Bronson was at times, Nigel was at times. This year, it’s really not too much of a question.”
The only questions now are how will Happ handle his new role and what is the next step in his development as a player?
According to UW coaches and players, Happ has already assumed a leadership role, starting on the team’s trip to New Zealand and Australia in August. He’s not a big talker, but he’s the hardest worker on the team and he’s already mentoring the younger big men. He’s taken his leadership role seriously enough that he occasionally picks the brain of former UW teammate and current NBA player Frank Kaminsky.
What remains to be seen is how Happ copes with the pressure of being UW’s go-to player and how he navigates the myriad of double teams that are certain to come his way on the floor.
“I think he’ll handle it well,” assistant coach Howard Moore said. “It’s not early in his career; this is Year 4. He’s been around. He’s seen how other people have handled it, good and bad. And now he’s got a little bit of perspective to say, ‘This is who I am and I’m prepared for this.’
“Whether it’s understanding situations, reading practices or those times during the season when we’re either doing well or we’re not doing so well and we’re trying to find our way, he’s got a little more perspective now where he can step up and either say the right things in the locker room or just come out here and kick tail and set the tone for us to get out of a rut. Having that perspective is going to be a big key.”
What won’t change for Happ is his exquisite footwork and creative moves around the basket, relentlessness on the glass and versatility on defense. When asked where he can improve, Happ offered a short list of items, starting with leadership, then moving on to more practical concerns.
“More than speaking out, it’s just working as hard as I can and just having guys follow in my footsteps,” he said. “But I’m working on a couple different moves under the hoop, I want to take another step forward defensively and I want to increase my assist-to-turnover ratio from last year.”
Happ averaged 14.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game last season. Although he led UW in assists with 104, he also led in turnovers with 81. Since he figures to have the ball in his hands more this season, reducing the turnovers is critical.
Many of Happ’s turnovers came in the middle portion of the season when Big Ten Conference opponents started double-teaming him in the post and he didn’t react very well. As the season went on, however, he started making opponents pay for their double-teaming. Now he knows he’ll have to make even better decisions this season.
“It was more of a mental thing really just to not get in a hurry and not speed myself up once the double-team came and to slow down and make my decision,” he said. “But once I saw more double-teams, I started to become more effective out of them and I think that’ll be the same thing this year.”
Of course, the big thing with Happ will always be his outside shot. The UW coaches changed his form after his redshirt freshman season and he’s been working hard to develop a reliable outside shot ever since.
Happ shot 58.6 percent from the field last season but didn’t attempt a 3-point shot and shot only 50 percent from the free-throw line. He did make the first two mid-range jump shots of his UW career, which was a sign of progress. Happ has continued to work diligently on his shot since last season.
“I feel confident,” he said. “But I guess it’s just going to be something where it’s wait and see what happens in the games.”
Happ’s coaches aren’t counting on him becoming a long-range bomber. They would, however, like to see him get a lot better from 15 feet away.
“I think the biggest thing is raising his free-throw percentage,” Moore said. “He’s a kid that is going to draw fouls. Now that he’ll be featured a lot more in what we do and obviously get the touches where he can make things happen, the frequency of getting to the free-throw line is going to go up. You want to see that free-throw percentage get to the point where people don’t want to foul him or he’s getting to the line and he’s cashing in there.”
Most UW big men under former coach Bo Ryan and current coach Greg Gard have been strong outside shooters. But while the coaches would take that from Happ, they don’t harp on it.
Instead, they believe his superb ball handling ability can help him make up for opponents declining to guard him when he steps outside. That’s especially true since the interior might be a little less crowded this season without Hayes posting up and Koenig driving the lane.
“I love the fact that he can put the ball on the floor,” Moore said. “If they’re going to play off of him as a so-called non-shooter, the fact that he can take away space by attacking and putting it on the floor and making plays, that’s just as effective as shooting from 3. I don’t know if he’ll ever be (former UW star) Brian Butch. Does he need to be Brian Butch? I don’t think so. I think he needs to be who he is.
“If he can attack and put it on the floor at the five spot, that’s pretty tough. And then you’re talking about drawing fouls or drawing defenses where he has the ability to kick it to guys that are open on the perimeter and make them pay that way. I think that’s the next step for him because it’s in his wheelhouse. It’s something he already has in his package.”
One final thing that would help Happ is for some of the team’s younger players to knock down 3-point shots with regularity. UW showed during the summer trip that there are plenty of outside shooting options on the roster. In fact, Happ never led the team in scoring during the five-game trip.
The shooting of sophomores D’Mitrik Trice and Brevin Pritzl and freshmen Brad Davison and Kobe King give Happ hope he’ll eventually see fewer double-teams this season.
“I think we have a lot of (scorers),” he said. “Not that we didn’t last year, but I think if guys can knock down shots confidently this year, then they’ll be less encouraged to come with the doubles and that’ll free stuff up for me.”
Whatever happens, the best way for Happ to deal with the added pressure is to get better, smarter and more aggressive. His career arc suggests none of those will be a problem.