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Big men finding homes inside and out in college hoops

Ethan Happ is ready to take his game outside this season at Wisconsin. Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire

MADISON, Wis. -- His numbers and accolades prove he's America's most capable returning big man.

Last season, Wisconsin power forward Ethan Happ grabbed a spot on the Associated Press All-America squad's third team after averaging 14.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.8 steals per game.

The all-Big Ten first-teamer also finished 20th in KenPom.com's efficiency ratings for high-usage players.

But an offseason video of the junior shooting 3-pointers -- the 6-foot-10 standout did not take a 3-pointer in his first two years with the program -- sparked talk of the veteran big man evolving like the versatile incoming freshmen who will soon alter the collegiate landscape.

The expectation that Happ and others like him must learn to shoot from beyond the arc is a sign of the speed with which the perception of players 6-foot-9 and taller has changed in the past 20 years.

Wisconsin's Greg Gard does not anticipate, however, a significant change.

"He's understood, too, where his bread is buttered," Gard told ESPN.com. "He understands what he's really good at. He's not going to become Steph Curry."

In the 1998 NBA draft, the Los Angeles Clippers picked Michael Olowokandi with the first pick, despite the prospect's limited experience in organized basketball. But he was a 7-footer when the NBA craved size in a previous era where big men could make millions with limited skill sets.

Former Utah star Michael Doleac, selected 12th in that draft, played for more than a decade and made more than $20 million in his career without attempting a 3-pointer.

That makes the 2017 recruiting class -- and 2018 draft class -- intriguing. At the top, it's stacked with big men who do not resemble their predecessors who enjoyed similar physical advantages but lacked their athleticism.

Duke's Marvin Bagley III, Missouri's Michael Porter Jr., Arizona's DeAndre Ayton and Texas' Mohamed Bamba -- ESPN.com's top four recruits in the 2017 class, respectively -- all stand 6-11 or taller. And they'll all tell you they're comfortable playing in space and competing outside the lane.

Michigan State's Jaren Jackson, a five-star recruit, will disrupt the Big Ten with the inside-outside game that accompanies his 6-11 frame. Kentucky's Kevin Knox is a 6-9 combo forward.

"I do think it's a much larger part of the talent evaluation process when it comes to bigs," one NBA scout told ESPN.com. "It's not to say bigs without jumpers are not useful, but those with jumpers certainly have more value and allow your coaching staff to have more flexibility."

One 1998 scouting report on Nazr Mohammed said, "he can block shots and does a solid job of drawing fouls." The 6-10 center played in the NBA for nearly two decades after he was selected 29th in the 1998 draft.

On ESPN.com right now, the 6-11 Bagley is described as a player with "soft shooting touch, scoring instincts and ball-handling ability."

Cuonzo Martin's first season at Missouri will revolve around Porter, a projected lottery pick who can score inside with ease, hit shots from the arc or elude a defender off the dribble.

"A lot of people have pretty high hopes," Porter said about the upcoming season. "I don't feel any pressure. I welcome it."

In his first practices with his squad, Ayton ran the floor unlike any 7-foot-1, 260-pound athlete college basketball has seen since Shaquille O'Neal left LSU. Sean Miller said he plans to pair 7-footers Dusan Ristic and Ayton in his starting lineup because he's confident Ayton is agile enough to guard smaller players on the perimeter when necessary and still dominate around the rim.

"He's gained almost 30 pounds of muscle in seven weeks," Miller said.

And Bamba will do his best work on the defensive end with his 7-foot-9 wingspan. Shaka Smart's squad surrendered a 47.7 percent clip to opponents inside the arc last season, No. 108 in the country per KenPom.com.

Bamba should reduce that number in 2017-18. But he's also athletic enough to alter and challenge shots outside the paint, the most underrated element of Anthony Davis' contribution to Kentucky's national title run in 2012.

"He's versatile on both ends," Smart said.

Happ, a member of the Big Ten's all-defensive team, could rack up the accolades again this year if he repeats last season's production. But he wants to show he's capable of more.

"If I shoot [3-pointers] now, start to make some, then make some more, it's better for our team," Happ, who made 34.8 percent of his jump shots last season, told CBS Sports in July.

His teammates agree Happ could unveil new elements of his game this year, while continuing to rely on what he does best.

"Ethan, he produces like no other," Wisconsin guard D'Mitrik Trice said. "He led us in all five categories last year and he still doesn't get the hype I think he deserves. ... He's smooth. I think a lot of people underestimate his shooting ability now. And I think this year we'll see that he's working on his jump shot."

Twenty years ago, basketball's power brokers called shooting touch a luxury for the few power forwards and centers who could legitimately claim they had it.

For today's young big men, it has become a requirement for those who hope to stand out and compete at the next level.