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Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ is college basketball’s most underappreciated star

The redshirt sophomore center is Wisconsin’s latest diamond in the rough.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a subtlety to Ethan Happ’s game that masks the ruthless efficiency of Wisconsin’s sophomore center. To watch Happ is to see a series of sleight of hand tricks in real time, ball fakes and spin moves and hook shots that would have looked more appropriate decades ago.

Happ feels like a throwback trapped in the future. He’s a big man who can do everything other than shoot outside of 5 feet, yet one who gets it done with a style that resembles few contemporaries. He doesn’t have Lonzo Ball’s panache, Miles Bridges’ explosion or Malik Monk’s flamethrower shooting stroke, but his game is every bit as entertaining.

As a former three-star recruit, Happ isn’t just Wisconsin’s latest diamond in the rough. He’s also college basketball’s most underappreciated star.

Happ wasn’t even the headliner on his own team coming into the season. Nigel Hayes was the Badger was who named Big Ten Player of the Year in the preseason and Bronson Koenig was the senior point guard with Final Four experience and an NCAA tournament buzzer-beater on his resume. Along the way, Happ has emerged as the best player on a Wisconsin team in poll position to win the conference and go on another long run in March.

Happ has been as productive as any player in college basketball this year. He’s shooting 61.8 percent from the floor, he’s top-20 in the country in rebounding percentage and has the highest assist rate (23.9 percent) of any center in D1. His advanced numbers are even more impressive.

Happ is leading college basketball in BPM (box score plus/minus) at 18.2, which is 2.2 points better than No. 2 (Virginia’s Isaiah Wilkins). He’s also tops in the country in wins shares per 40 minutes and PER at 35.3.

So much of Happ’s value comes through on the defensive end. He’s No. 11 in the country in steal rate, first in defense rating and third in defensive win shares. If the advanced stats aren’t convincing you, maybe Jay Bilas will:

Happ’s ability to rack up steals is incredibly rare for a center. He’s the only player in the top 70 of the steal rate rankings taller than 6’7. He owes so much of it to an incredible quickness that allows him to get out into the passing lanes and intercept the ball.

Watch how he baits the opposing guard into throwing the pass to one shoulder before racing around and snatching it on the other end:

He’s also a master at pushing the ball coast-to-coast in transition and using his body as a shield to finish once he gets to the rim.

Wisconsin has always had a reputation for uncovering hidden gems, with players like Jordan Taylor and Alando Tucker going from unheralded recruits to college stars. The best example is Frank Kaminsky, who turned into the national player of the year and powered two Final Four runs as a former three-star recruit. Happ is quickly joining that lineage.

Growing up in small town Milan, Ill. near the Quad Cities, Happ was just 5’9 at the start of eighth grade, 6’3 during his freshman season and a 6’7 small forward when he signed with Wisconsin as a sophomore. At the time, Happ’s only other offers were from UW-Milwaukee and UW-Green Bay.

Happ didn’t play on one of the three major shoe company grassroots circuits, which made recognition hard to come by. He turned himself into a two-time all-state player in Illinois by the end of his high school career and then had a standout performance playing for the United States at the Albert Schweitzer tournament in Germany. By then, Wisconsin fans thought they had found the Badgers’ next sleeper.

Bo Ryan needed more convincing. With a veteran team returning off a Final Four run the previous season, Happ redshirted. He spent every day going against Kaminsky, Hayes and Sam Dekker in practice. That experience was parlayed into a Big Ten Freshman of the Year campaign when he made his college debut last season.

He’s taken another major jump this season as a redshirt sophomore. He’s leading the Badgers in points, rebounds, steals and blocks per game and he’s a close second in assists. He’s also one of the most efficient scorers in the country.

Happ’s only real weakness is his lack of shooting range. He has not attempted a three-pointer in his college career and is only a 50.5 percent foul shooter. Combine that with a somewhat undersized frame for a center at 6’10, 230 pounds, and NBA scouts haven’t come calling just yet. If that means Wisconsin gets two more seasons of Happ after this one, Badger fans will be perfectly OK with it.

Wisconsin has at least reached the Sweet 16 in five of the last six years, and it has the roster to do it again this season with Happ raising his game to a new level. You might not think of Happ as one of the best players in the country, but the numbers definitively prove otherwise.