Ethan Happ isn’t alone this season.
There are 10 other Big Ten Conference men’s basketball players who, like the University of Wisconsin’s decorated senior big man, tested the NBA draft waters and decided to return to school for another season. The 6-foot-10 Happ was among a larger group of players nationally who worked out for NBA teams, were told when or if they could expect to go in the draft and received feedback on what they needed to work on if they opted to go back to school.
At the Big Ten media day in Chicago, the eight coaches with players who returned after testing the waters were asked the same question: Do you have any concerns that a player who has considered leaving for a professional career will be fully engaged this season or will he be operating on his own agenda?
It’s a valid question. In Happ’s case, however, the concerns simply aren’t there, largely due to his actions since he went through the draft workout process.
UW coach Greg Gard responded with an emphatic “No” when asked if he had any worries about Happ’s approach to the season. And why isn’t he concerned that Happ, who was named a preseason first-team All-American, might be on his own program?
“Because I’ve watched his focus switch completely to his team in his senior year,” Gard said. “I think getting that experience behind him has helped him focus even more on his senior year, knowing that that avenue to his future, we’ve done that, and now we’re focused on, we’ve got one more year left. … I’ve watched him grow and mature and develop over the last four years, but I’ve seen a huge leap just in the past six months.
“I think going through that experience and getting that feedback was not only good for him individually as a player — it’s made him a better player — but it’s also helped him bring some of that knowledge and experience and expertise back to our younger guys. I’ve watched it help those guys. So I’ve seen it as a positive. I thought it was a positive when he was going to go through it, that he needed to go through it. It was good for him and ultimately what’s good for him also helps us.”
Gard isn’t the only one who has witnessed Happ’s growth since his NBA flirtation. Sophomore guard Brad Davison said Happ seems more determined than ever to help UW get back on track after going 15-18 and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997-98.
“He’s been as locked in as I’ve ever seen him this summer,” Davison said. “He’s been pushing Nate (Reuvers) in practice and the other posts in practice, challenging them to try and compete with him. He’s a very good player, so I don’t know if they can all the time, but … he pushes everyone in practice and he leads by example with the way he works.”
There are multiple reasons why Happ will have a successful senior year, one that would allow him to leave a mark on the program’s record book second to none in UW history. If Happ merely repeats his totals from last season, he’ll finish first in rebounding, second in steals and blocked shots and third in points and assists among every player who has worn a Badgers jersey.
But putting up historic numbers isn’t the reason Happ will be all-in this season. Because he’s intelligent and level-headed, Happ knows being coachable and playing winning basketball are things the NBA is looking for in addition to skill, size and athleticism. That should alleviate any concerns over his approach to this season.
For one thing, he’s always been a team player on the floor, doing whatever is necessary to help the team win. With UW short on point guards late last season, the Big Ten’s most versatile player even became the team’s primary ballhandler and facilitator. His willingness to do that was one of the reasons UW won five of its last eight games and finished the season on a high note.
Second, everything Happ has done since he worked out for NBA teams points to a player who is fully engaged. From working on his game more diligently than ever to driving the younger players to do the same, Happ became a role model for his teammates throughout the offseason.
Third, after taking a back seat to Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig for two seasons, Happ developed into a more dynamic team leader as a junior. Visibly frustrated with his young teammates at times earlier in the season, Happ did an about-face later on. Remember UW’s upset of sixth-ranked Purdue in February when he gathered his teammates on the floor and told them in no uncertain terms that they would not lose the game after he fouled out? The normally reserved Happ would not have done that earlier in the season, a sure sign he had taken ownership of the program.
Finally, the feedback Happ got from NBA scouts reinforced the notion that the things he needs to improve on in his game are also things that will help UW in the long run. Happ was encouraged to improve his free throw percentage and develop a mid-range shot, things he has been working on since he restructured his outside shot after his redshirt season in 2014-15. His shot has looked more natural every year, but this is the year the improvement could start to show because in his workouts Happ has been more focused than ever on shooting the same way every single time.
Happ said the two biggest reasons he returned to UW were to improve his draft stock by working on the areas of his game the scouts told him needed work and his excitement over the way the team, which returns virtually intact, closed last season.
“It’s definitely mutually beneficial — the feedback I got from the teams and also what will help Wisconsin win,” he said. “If I can make it so you foul me and I’m converting at 70 percent rather than 55 percent, that’s just more points on the board for Wisconsin.
“When I went to test the waters, I was looking to go make a team. That was two feet in the boat that way and now that I came back there’s no indecisiveness or bitterness about not going. It’s all-in for Wisconsin for the last year.”
Those closest to Happ have no problem believing that.
“As soon as he got back, he was spending time with all the guys, he was in the gym, he was focused,” Davison said. “He’s always been a great guy, but you could see that weight lifted off his shoulders, where he knows he’s here for a year and he knows that we all have one common purpose and one common goal.”
Asked if his shot is coming around after an offseason of intensive workouts, Happ will only say, “I guess we’re going to find out this season.” Gard expects Happ’s shot to be better because “nobody puts more time into improving his individual game than him.”
But the coach also expects Happ to be Happ.
“He has improved,” Gard said. “But also he understands where his bread is buttered. He understands what he’s really good at. He’s a matchup problem 8 feet and in just because of his mobility and ambidexterity with both hands and feet. His footwork is so good. That’s what they raved about at the next level, how good his feet are. Now it’s a matter of using that. Don’t forget what’s made you really good, what’s made you write those records and can we build upon it and how do we do that within the confines of our team.”
Of course, a more skilled Happ would mean one thing for UW.
“Him being a more complete player only makes us better,” Gard said. “That’s the bottom line. I’ve always reminded myself to appreciate what he’s done for this program and the impact that he’s had. He’s rewritten the record books. The record book he wants to write now is the wins for his team. He’s very team-oriented. He’s always had a team mindset.”
There is no reason to expect that to change.