Former Wisconsin Badgers big man Ethan Happ is undoubtedly one of the best playmakers at his position in the 2019 NBA draft class.
The four-year starter was Big Ten Rookie of the Year in 2016, a two-time finalist for the Wooden Award and last year won the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award for the nation’s top center. He was a Consensus All-American Second-Team and was twice recognized for All-Defensive honors in his Conference. Twice, Happ recorded the best Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in the Big Ten while also finishing Top 5 in the NCAA for Box Plus-Minus.
He caught up with HoopsHype after the G League Elite Camp, where he had 4.5 assists per game.
What are some of your biggest takeaways from playing at Wisconsin?
Ethan Happ: I had the time of my life. People always ask me about whether or not I’m sad that it’s over. But I had so much fun and I experienced those years to the fullest and I don’t regret everything. There are games I wish I had played better but my teammates became some of my best friends and the fan base was there for me through thick and thin. It was such a great time in Madison and I’ll miss it but I’m ready for the next step. I put a lot of numbers but I was always diving on the floor for loose balls. I tried to do whatever it took to get a win.
Was the NBA on your radar as a three-star recruit coming out of high school?
EH: From the time I was little, my dad told me I had the chance to play D1 college basketball. So that was always the goal. And when I was picking my college, I picked them because of the way they developed guys who had my size and my skills and turned them into NBA players. People may not have seen me that way but I always had that goal and that dream in my mind. It’s one of the many reasons I picked Wisconsin.
You have such a decorated career with so many awards. What are you most proud of achieving while in college?
EH: I’d say I was most proud of my teams. There were so many good players that helped take the pressure off me. We had so many guys step up and play a lot better last year than they did the previous year. It definitely made my life easier to operate and move. When I see those individual awards, I’ll think about the work I put in since I was a little kid – the early mornings, staying after practice. But I’ll think of my teammates and how they made it easier for me.
What advice have you received from older players from the Badgers about this process?
EH: I’m still in touch with Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes frequently. I just saw Frank Kaminsky. The biggest thing going into these workouts is that you have to be in really good shape. Try and make it so that you’re so well prepared and conditioned you will stand out from the rest of the guys.
I’d love to hear how you have been preparing for the 2019 NBA draft so far.
EH: I’ve been in Chicago, my agency is based out here. Every day, we work out at Quest Multisport for a few hours and every other day we lift with the trainers. Sunday is mostly focused on yoga. I feel like we’ve done a great job preparing and at the end of the day, it comes down to playing your game to the best of your ability and focus on what has worked well for you. I have a good feeling about where I’m at right now.
You’ve tested the waters before. How has that previous experience helped you this time around?
EH: I’d say the preparation has helped because I can prep for the same drills and conditioning that I did last year. But at the end of the day, it’s basketball. If you can play well, that’s great. If you can’t, it will be exposed. A lot of the teams I spoke with last year were very high on my passing and ballhandling ability for a big man. I’m still trying to develop my shot to stretch the floor. But I’ve heard the way I can put the ball on the floor and make decisions with it can help separate me from other players at this position. Since last year, my assist-to-turnover ratio took a huge step forward.
Did you play guard at the one when you were younger or have you always been a big man?
EH: Yeah, I played point guard until I was a sophomore in high school. It’s probably the biggest part of my game. It’s the reason why Wisconsin even recruited me. I’m a big who handles the ball and make good reads in the open court. That’s something I’m really looking to expand on and continue to do well at the next level.
What are some of the things you’ve been most excited to show out during this process?
EH: It got put in the shadows a little bit the last two years because I had to take the center stage and couldn’t really gamble as much, but my game has a really strong defense. My first year, I was on the All-Defensive team for the Big 10. And my second year, I was the AP Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore. I want to show organizations that I can play an NBA style and I can switch everything. I have the ability to move my feet and stay in front of guys. I feel confident that I will be able to guard one through five. Obviously, I’d need help with the super quick elite point guard. But I can keep them in front of me and force jump shots.
What are some of the other things you want teams to know about you as a player?
EH: This sounds weird because my last two years my points per game went up. But I was at my best when I was more of a role player on those first two teams when we went to the Sweet 16 twice. I play really well off others as a driver and cutter. I can take on that role in the NBA in a rotation. So I can cut, move, pass and make decisions and those are things I am able to do at the next level. I want everyone to know I’m a team player.
Any specific plays or schemes that you think best utilize your talents?
EH: Teams can play through big men that can pass and dribble and if I get the ball in the high post or on the wing and we run a screen for a shooter, I’ll make a decision out of that for the right read. Pitch it to me in the high post and then going into pin down, you watch Golden State and they do that every other time. For pick and rolls on the weak side or the wing, hit me on the roll and I’ll make a decision from there. I’ll either pass it to the right player on the corner or take a floater myself and make the smart choice going full speed to catch it on the run. I came in where I wasn’t really a big man but me catching it on the run and putting it on the deck and kicking it right away or taking a reverse layup, that’s something I can do.
I think you shined most when passing out of the post up. How will that translate?
EH: That’s obviously going to be different with the strength and the size in the NBA. But if I get one-on-one or doubles in the post, I’m reading the other eight guys on the court besides my defender. Most players at my position will just look at their defender but I’ll read mine with my body and then get a feel for the rest of the guys on the court and find an open guy.
Transitioning a little bit, I’ve seen your cousin is JA Happ on the Yankees. I’d love to hear more about the athleticism in your family.
EH: Yeah, that side is very athletic. He plays for the Yankees. My other cousin played football at Northwestern. And his brother played baseball at Western Michigan. We’re very tall and it always made Christmas whiffle ball or playing basketball in the driveway very competitive. I remember one time I was looking JA in the eye and the next year, I was two inches taller than he was even though he’s almost 10 years older than I am.
How do you spend the rest of your time away from basketball?
EH: If you ask a lot of basketball players, they’ll say video games. I do that occasionally. But I like to play chess. I was the Sixth Grade Chess Champion at my grade school. I still have that little wooden trophy and it’s pretty sick. I still hang that over everyone I went to school with. It’s kind of similar to basketball. While basketball is more instant reactions, you have to think a few moves ahead. How is the defense going to play this pass? If I do this, this is what the other person is going to do in response. And I’ve played since third grade. I play against my dad or my friends and all of the time on planes. People ask ‘who are you and why are you doing this to me?’ when I’ve beaten strangers on planes. If you ever come to where I am, we can play a game and I can show you.