Someday, when Haywood Highsmith Jr. is old and gray, he will be able to regale his children, grandchildren and maybe even great-grandchildren with the tale of how he drained his very first shot — a 3-pointer, no less — in his NBA debut.
“It was a dream come true,” the Baltimore native and Archbishop Curley graduate said Sunday night after making the shot in the fourth quarter of the 76ers’ 132-115 rout of the Washington Wizards on Jan. 8 in Philadelphia. “It’s definitely a memory I will cherish. I’ve always dreamed about scoring in the NBA and being on an NBA court in an NBA game. So I got all of those things, and when I made the shot, it was all surreal and just felt so good. It was definitely one of the best memories of my life.”
Only 22 years old, the 6-foot-7, 220-pound Highsmith will have a long time before his favorite seat is a rocking chair. For now, with the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision Sunday to waive guard Jaylen Morris, the Wheeling Jesuit (W.Va.) graduate is content with enjoying the moment as the only player from a Division II program on an active NBA roster this season.
“I’m very blessed to be where I came from,” he said. “Not a lot of guys from Division II schools can say they came straight out of a Division II school and the next year, they’re playing in the NBA somehow. There was a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work, but I’m truly blessed. I just thank God for giving me this opportunity, and I have a lot of family and a lot of friends who helped me through this. It was a long journey, but I still made it. I guess my story just shows to anybody that even if you don’t go to a big Division I school, you can make it to the NBA somehow.”
That proposition seemed like a long shot for Highsmith at Archbishop Curley, where he had three different head coaches in his first three years. And despite being the Friars’ top player, Highsmith — who was 6-5 and 180 pounds at the time — got scant attention from Division I programs, according to Brian Hubbard, who coached Highsmith for his final two seasons.
“I was kind of wondering why a local coach wouldn’t take a chance, but I also knew that we were at Curley, and we were building something,” said Hubbard, now an assistant coach for the boys basketball team at Friends School. “So we weren’t a Baltimore powerhouse, and there weren’t coaches knocking on the door coming to a bunch of different games. So it was one of those things where you kind of understood that offers weren’t coming in, but I was hoping that a coach, especially a local coach, would take the opportunity with him.”
Hubbard instead contacted Wheeling Jesuit coach Danny Sancomb, who was an assistant for the Cardinals when Hubbard played there for one season. Sancomb initially saw Highsmith as a long-term project.
“I thought we were going to redshirt him his first year just from a physical standpoint,” recalled Sancomb, a Meade graduate who is now the coach at the California University of Pennsylvania. “Three weeks into the workouts, I looked at my assistant coach and said, ‘Not only are we not going to redshirt this guy, but he’s going to play and contribute right away as a freshman.’ He came off the bench, and about 13 games in, the kid that played in front of him was injured, and then the rest was history. He was playing so well coming off the bench, and once that kid got hurt, there was no taking him out of the starting lineup.”
Highsmith wrapped up his senior season as the Division II National Player of the Year, leading the NCAA in double doubles (29) and averaging 22.0 points and 12.5 rebounds. He became only the second player in Wheeling Jesuit history to compile more than 1,500 points (1,952) and 1,000 rebounds (a school-record 1,251) in his career.
Despite adding 2 inches and 40 pounds to his frame, Highsmith was overlooked by NBA scouts. He was not invited to the Portsmouth Invitational, the top showcase for college seniors who are not considered top prospects, but still went there and networked with several NBA scouts and executives.
The 76ers were the only franchise that was interested and invited Highsmith to their summer league training camp. But the day before the team finalized its roster for the Las Vegas Summer League, Highsmith was cut. Three weeks later, he was invited by the organization’s G League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats, to their training camp and signed in October, but he said the small window of being unemployed was nerve-wracking.
“It wasn’t a lot of time, but it was still enough time to make you think, ‘What’s going to happen?’ ” he said. “A lot of guys might think about quitting or maybe giving up or maybe looking for another team, but I was confident that I would have something. I just kept working and staying in the gym.”
In 21 games with the Blue Coats, Highsmith averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds, shooting 45 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from 3-point range. On Jan. 8, he signed a two-way contract from the 76ers that permits the parent franchise to keep him for up to 45 days on their active roster and allow him to play for the Blue Coats.
“I think this is a long-term investment by the Sixers,” Blue Coats coach Connor Johnson said. “They’re looking at Haywood as someone who can contribute, and the two-way thing, I think, is nice because he gets the experience and development of playing with us, but he also gets a little sneak peek of what it’s going to be like at the NBA level and what it’s going to take for him to be successful. We’ve talked to him pretty frankly about how the two-way is not the goal. The goal for him is to be a long-term NBA player, and the two-way is a step toward that, but it’s by no means the final goal for him.”
Since his NBA debut last Tuesday, Highsmith has been inactive for four games, did not play in one, and recorded 11 points and four rebounds in the Blue Coats’ 101-96 win against the Lakeland Magic on Jan. 9. But he remains encouraged about his journey.
“You always hear the quote, ‘It’s not about how you start, but how you finish.’ I’m not finished, but I didn’t start too great by maybe not getting some big-time offers,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I didn’t let that come between my passion, and look where I am now. It took a lot of perseverance and a lot of dedication, and I’ve just got to keep grinding at the end of the day.”