How Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ developed into a paradoxical and underappreciated superstar

The Dagger
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/126298/" data-ylk="slk:Ethan Happ">Ethan Happ</a> (22) leads Wisconsin in everything from field goal percentage and blocked shots to assists and steals. (Getty)
Ethan Happ (22) leads Wisconsin in everything from field goal percentage and blocked shots to assists and steals. (Getty)

With the sun still hiding below the horizon and the cold pinching at anybody who dared expose themselves to it, Ethan Happ would grab his fully-packed school bags, jump into his white Pontiac Grand Am, and begin his winter days. Before a basketball could be bounced, an engine had to be revved, an exhaust pipe had to belch, and the 17-year-old version of the Big Ten’s most intriguing player had to roll out into the early morning Midwestern darkness.

And before he could do that, the night before, he had to compose a quick text message. A few miles away, the cell phone of Rockridge High School head basketball coach Toby Whiteman would beep. Ethan’s name would flash on the screen, and underneath it would be a short message:

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I’m coming by to get the keys tomorrow morning.

Whiteman knew what the text meant. It wasn’t the first time he’d received it, nor would it be the last. He also knew all it needed was a quick response:

You know where they are.

Whiteman would leave his keys, including the one to the Rockridge High gym, in a cup in his van, and he’d leave the van unlocked, so when Ethan would swing by around 6:45 the following morning, he could grab them. During his junior and senior years, he’d also grab Whiteman’s oldest son. The two would cruise through the sun-stained western Illinois morning to school, and specifically to the gym. Around 7:15 or 7:30, Whiteman would arrive to hear the pounding of a ball on the hardwood floor, the occasional clang of a rim, the squeak of sneakers.

It’s here, four miles away from the Iowa border, in this cramped gym with the baselines only a few dangerous feet away from the building’s walls, that college basketball’s most paradoxical superstar came to be, a guard in a big man’s body who won’t shoot outside the paint, a 6-foot-10 defensive player of the year favorite who averages twice as many steals as blocks, a bruiser who quarterbacks fast breaks, a powerful gazelle in the open court.

Every once in a while, Ethan Happ’s skills will converge to produce a truly breathtaking sequence, a back-tip post steal on one end, a no-look pass on the other, maybe a behind-the-back dribble in between. When they do, television viewers’ eyes bulge; GIFs inundate social media; hoopheads in attendance oooh and ahhh.

Happ hears the oohs and ahhs, usually from adoring Wisconsin fans, and occasionally even from Badger teammates. “I know it feels out of the ordinary for other people,” he concedes. “But it’s something I’ve been doing since first grade.”

***

He’s been doing it since elementary school adjourned in May or June and childhood summers commenced in Milan (pronounced MY-lan), Illinois, a small town near the Quad Cities that self-identifies as a village rather than a city.

On the south side of the village, on a slab of pavement 57 feet long and 24 feet wide, is where the skills that now dazzle the Big Ten were first honed, in the Happ family’s driveway. There, with father Randy off at work, the two Happ boys, Eric and Ethan, would weave in and out of cones, around chairs, 57 feet in one direction, 57 feet in the other.

When they finished, they’d bound over to the garage, where a clipboard hung from a nail. The clipboard held a spreadsheet. Randy had concocted the spreadsheet on his computer, and printed it out before leaving for work. It was full of basketball exercises — mostly ball handling and defense, occasionally shooting — for his sons to complete before he returned home in the evening. So Eric and Ethan would scurry up and down the driveway, working in crossovers, steering the ball behind their backs or between their legs. Then they’d scribble check marks on the spreadsheet to denote completion of the specific workouts.

There were some complaints, as there would be from any 8-year-old kid doing relatively monotonous drills with the freedom of summer otherwise at his or her feet. Randy wouldn’t force the boys to practice, though; when they didn’t, he’d let it pass with nothing more than a passive jab: “OK, somebody else got further than you today,” he’d say. When they did, he stresses now, “it was all them.”

Of course, there was nothing stopping the Happ brothers from filling out the spreadsheets without any basketball being played at all. Randy would take the odd vacation day to come home and work with them, but Eric and Ethan were usually on their own. Their skill development from week to week and summer to summer, however, was proof that they were out on the pavement almost every day. “Rather than just stay in and play video games, we would go out and work on two-ball dribbling, and stuff with tennis balls,” Ethan confirms.

It wasn’t just summers either. Until the cold became unbearable during winter, the Happ boys would chip ice off the driveway, don gloves without fingertips — they had been snipped off for this specific purpose — and grind through the same drills they’d been perfecting in warmer temperatures.

Ethan didn’t play AAU ball until the summer after his freshman year of high school, so the driveway sessions were the main source of his skill development. And they paid off. On his local school team, “He was the best ball handler we had,” Randy, Ethan’s coach through sixth grade, recalls. “I was constantly trying to get other kids to develop, but when push came to shove, he had to handle the point.”

***

Midway through his first season at Rockridge High, Toby Whiteman increasingly found himself pondering a nagging question. Months ago, when he had first taken the job, assistant coach Logan Wynn had bombarded him with stories of Ethan Happ, now a 6-foot-6 sophomore, who used to bombard opponents with jump shots in junior high. Wynn was Happ’s neighbor and now his AAU coach, and had witnessed Happ’s exploits up close.

But his first year on the job, all Whiteman saw was a kid who had a hitch in his shot. He was confused. So he asked Wynn: “I thought you said that when he was in eighth grade he used to fill it up from the 3-point line?”

“He did,” Wynn responded.

Still befuddled, Whiteman followed up: “Did he have this same hitch in his shot in junior high?”

“Well, Toby,” Wynn explained, “he was the point guard. He was only 5-foot-9.”

Suddenly, everything made sense. Knowledge of Happ’s growth spurt — nine inches in two years — was the connection for Whiteman between the Happ he was coaching and the one Wynn had described. It’s also the connection between the Happ who glides up and down the Kohl Center floor, the one who flings pinpoint crosscourt passes, and the kid who grew up practicing what he now displays so regularly at Wisconsin.

Happ grew from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-2 by his freshman year, when he was a utility player on the Rockridge varsity and also the starting point guard on the JV. Then he sprung to 6-foot-6, and to 6-foot-8 by the time his high school career had run its course.

When Happ’s junior year rolled around, Whiteman faced a dilemma. His best ball handler also towered above many of his Illinois Class AA opponents. Whiteman couldn’t rationalize keeping the tallest player on the court on the perimeter. Ethan, still a guard at heart but now in a big man’s body, didn’t take well to the idea of moving down to the block.

“He fought me on it a bit,” Whiteman recalls.

So the two found middle ground. Ethan split position-specific drills 50/50 in practice. In games, he played the “five,” but was given the freedom to be himself in an up-tempo system. Whiteman allowed him to “rip and get” — to turn into the point guard when he pulled down a defensive rebound. The result was an enthralling anomaly of a high school player, and the highlight reel of a basketball unicorn.

Happ remained a more prototypical wing on his AAU team, though, and it’s there that his Wisconsin recruitment began, in the spring after his sophomore season. Happ’s Quad City Elite team was playing one of the area’s top programs, Illinois Wolves, and college coaches had come to scout an opponent, Keita Bates-Diop. Wisconsin assistant Gary Close, however, spotted Happ.

Two months later, Happ was at Wisconsin’s advanced camp, where Bo Ryan saw him for the first time. Both Close and Ryan liked Happ’s open floor playmaking ability. Randy Happ remembers Ryan saying that Ethan reminded him of Sam Dekker.

When Happ arrived in Madison in 2014, he still thought of himself as the player that Close and Ryan had seen and offered two summers ago. “I came in thinking I’d be a slasher,” he remembers.

But Greg Gard, then a Wisconsin assistant and now the Badgers’ head coach, always had other ideas.

“I thought, if anything, maybe he’d be a combo four,” Gard says. “But I don’t think we ever envisioned him being a Kevin Durant-like wing. We quickly realized he was best at doing what he’s doing [now].”

Happ soon realized too, in part because he was forced to. As a redshirt freshman on the scout team, he was the tallest of the reserves, so he’d wage daily battles with Frank Kaminsky. The stories of those battles — of the fierce competition, of Happ’s initial frustration, of Kaminsky’s empathy, of Kaminsky’s tutelage, and of Happ’s spongelike learning — have now made their way into Badger lore.

The scout team travails and unorthodox development arc have fused Happ into an underdiscussed Player of the Year candidate in his sophomore season. He’s fifth in Ken Pomeroy’s stats-based rankings. He shoots over 60 percent from the floor with a usage rate above 30 percent in conference play. He ranks in the top 10 in the Big Ten in scoring, assist rate, offensive and defensive rebound percentage, block percentage and steal percentage, and leads Wisconsin in those six categories as well.

The ridiculous range of skills gives Gard a diverse range of schematic options.

“When you have a player like that, much like Kaminsky was, you can really run your offense through them,” Gard says. “When you can put it in a big guy’s hands, and you can trust that pretty good decisions are going to be made, that puts a whole ‘nother level of pressure on a defense.”

***

On Dec. 27, 2016, in front of a sold-out but subdued home crowd in Madison, Wisconsin rolled to a straightforward 20-point victory over Rutgers. It was the team’s eighth-straight, and marked Happ’s first eight-game win streak as a Badger.

Whiteman watched from home that evening, and after the game petered out, he decided to call it a night. He was in bed by 10.

He awoke the following morning to find a familiar name had popped up on his phone. It was Ethan. The text wasn’t identical to the ones he used to get, but it might as well have been:

What time’s your practice tomorrow?

Home for winter break, Ethan wanted to get some shots up.

There is one gaping hole in Happ’s game. He is a 52 percent free throw shooter; he hasn’t attempted a 3-pointer his entire college career; he can count the number of shots he’s made outside the paint on one hand. When he set himself and launched an 18-footer against Northwestern two weeks ago, the entire Kohl Center crowd gasped.

But talk to anybody who knows Happ, anybody who’s watched him grow, and there is one common theme: The kid who eschewed video games for ball handling drills, who passed up extra sleep to pick up the keys, who fires shot after shot in otherwise empty gyms “95 days out of 100,” according to his father, will do anything in his power to fill that hole, or any hole in his game.

This past Saturday, the day before his 20-point, seven-rebound, five-steal, three-assist performance spearheaded a second-half comeback against Maryland, Happ had spoken to his father on the phone. Randy and his wife (Ethan’s mom), Teresa, were driving up to Madison Saturday and staying overnight. They were hoping to schedule a family dinner that evening.

But it would have to be after practice, Ethan reminded them.

And then an hour after that — and roughly 18 hours before one of the biggest games of his season thus far — he was going back to the gym to shoot.

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