BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Any midseason conversation for national player of the year would have to include Ethan Happ.
The senior center for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team was a preseason All-American and has lived up to that billing, averaging 19.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists. Happ has produced a triple-double and eight double-doubles while leading the No. 15 Badgers to a 10-2 start.
But he won’t be the reason scouts flock to E.A. Diddle Arena Saturday for a non-conference matchup between UW and Western Kentucky (6-6).
The main attraction will be Charles Bassey, a freshman center for the Hilltoppers who is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA draft. Bassey, ranked No. 18 overall in the 2018 recruiting class by ESPN, is averaging 14.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.
Happ vs. Bassey is an intriguing matchup within the UW-Western Kentucky matchup, and will provide scouts with one final measuring stick of the latter against a power conference opponent before the Hilltoppers begin Conference USA play.
It’ll be a good test for Happ, too. He hasn’t given up on his dream of playing in the NBA and could give scouts something to think about with a big game against Bassey.
Happ didn’t have much to say last week when asked about the Bassey matchup. Of course, the topic was raised before UW’s 84-53 win over Grambling State and Happ hadn’t begun preparing for Western Kentucky.
But this won’t be the first time Happ has gone up against a player who was being heavily scouted by NBA personnel. One that came to mind immediately for Happ was Thomas Bryant, who played two seasons at Indiana and is now in his second season in the NBA.
“Whenever we’d go head to head, I’d have a little more something to prove,” Happ said. “Once we get to Western Kentucky, maybe it’ll be a similar situation.”
Bassey is 6-foot-11, 245 pounds, slightly bigger than the 6-10, 237-pound Happ. But in many ways, they’re polar opposites.
Happ wasn’t highly recruited out of Milan, Illinois, and arrived at UW with little fanfare. He’s a fifth-year senior who redshirted as a true freshman, watching 40 games from the bench while serving as Frank Kaminsky’s apprentice/practice sparring partner.
Bassey, on the other hand, was courted by blue bloods such as Kansas and UCLA. He almost certainly will spend only season in college before moving on to the NBA.
The biggest knock against Happ is his lack of shooting touch — almost all of his scoring is done near the basket and he struggles at the free throw line — but his age is a factor as well. Happ turns 23 in May, and the trend for NBA teams is to take fliers on young players with an upside.
Players such as Bassey, in other words. He didn’t start playing basketball until the age of 12 — Bassey moved from Nigeria to the United States two years later — and turned 18 in October.
This actually should be Bassey’s senior year in high school, but he reclassified into the 2018 class after attending Aspire Academy in Louisville last season.
Bassey’s legal guardian is Hennssy Auriantal, who played guard for the Badgers from 1995-99. After spending time in Madison following his UW career, Auriantal eventually made his way to Texas, where he operated a nonprofit program that brought Bassey and other international basketball players to the U.S.
Jaws dropped around the college basketball world when Bassey committed to the Hilltoppers over the summer, but that decision made a lot more sense three weeks later when Auriantal was hired as an assistant coach by Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury.
Auriantal’s nephew, former Madison Memorial standout Junior Lomomba, played for the Hilltoppers as a graduate transfer in 2016-17, Stansbury’s first season.
UW assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft said he can see why Bassey is so highly thought of in NBA circles.
“The size, the athleticism, the length, combined with a pretty good skill set, there’s definitely truth behind that to my eyes,” Krabbenhoft said. “He does some things that you can’t teach as far as getting up and down the floor at his size, finishing above the rim.
“But what surprised me was for a freshman, just the kind of feel he has. He’s patient on the blocks, he gets offensive rebounds, he pump fakes. He plays with a strong base. It’s like he’s played against grown men before because most freshmen come in and they’re not used to playing against the strength and size they see in college. But I’ve been impressed with his composure, his ability to play off two feet and make the right play.”
Door still open
Shortly before Bassey’s shocking declaration that he’d be attending Western Kentucky, Happ made an announcement that wasn’t at all surprising: He’d be returning to UW for his senior season after going through the NBA draft early entry process last spring.
When Happ sat down with Greg Gard following that process, the UW coach reminded his star player that there were multiple paths on the road to the NBA.
“One door was shut — an early entry door — that’s all,” Gard said. “There are so many other ways.”
What Gard sees in Happ so far this season is a more mature player who has become comfortable being a team leader. It certainly helps that the players around him are more seasoned as well, but Happ appears to be embracing his role in helping UW put together a bounceback season after going 15-18 and missing the NCAA tournament in 2017-18.
“I see him with more smiles on his face than ever,” Gard said.
Part of that is joy from winning, but there’s more to it than that. Not only did Happ have to deal with stress from losing last season, he also had the nagging question of his future looming in the back of his mind.
“I was totally focused on the team last year, but it’s a little bit different knowing there’s not going to be a decision at the end of the year,” he said. “I’m not going to have to worry about anything after this year. It’s just going to be whether I’m good enough to make it or I’m not.”
Happ isn’t even among the 100 players listed on a “Big Board” of 2019 NBA draft-eligible players on nbadraft.net. It’s worth noting that he completely outplayed the No. 12 player on that list, Stanford sophomore forward KZ Okpala, last month in a Battle 4 Atlantis quarterfinal. Happ posted a double-double and served as the primary defender on Okpala, who went 2-for-12 from the field.
Bassey is No. 20 on the list. Three other players Happ will scrap with this season — Maryland’s Bruno Fernando (11) and Jalen Smith (19), and Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis (29) — are potential first-round picks next summer.
Each of those players will bring NBA personnel to the gym. Not that it matters to Happ, who says he doesn’t think about trying to impress scouts.
“I think that’s probably for the best,” he said. “I try to go out and play hard every night.”