Baltimore native Haywood Highsmith Jr. would not take no for an answer on path from Curley to NBA Finals

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Even as he watched Nikola Jokic carve the court with surgical passes and Bam Adebayo float in jumper after jumper, Jeff Van Gundy made a point of talking about Haywood Highsmith Jr.

“I like Highsmith,” said the ESPN analyst and former NBA coach, not known for dispensing empty praise. “I like his readiness. I like his ability to make shots. And defensively, he’s active and solid.”


If only the NBA Finals audience watching Game 1 between the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets knew how improbable it was that Highsmith, a Baltimore native, was raining buckets — 18 points in 23 minutes — against the best players in the world.

“It gives me chills every time I think about it,” said Danny Sancomb, Highsmith’s college coach. “Because I know his journey. It hasn’t been an easy path.”


“No one believed in me” ranks among our most hackneyed sports cliches. But it’s literally true that no one watching Highsmith play out of position as a skinny teenager at Archbishop Curley envisioned his basketball story climaxing on this stage.

No one watching Haywood Highsmith Jr. play out of position as a skinny teenager at Archbishop Curley envisioned his basketball story reaching the NBA Finals with the Miami Heat.

Division I recruiters ignored him. So did the vast majority of NBA scouts, even as he won Division II Player of the Year honors at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. He persevered through four stints with the Delaware Blue Coats of the NBA’s G League, wrapped around a season with the Crailsheim Merlins of the German Bundesliga. Highsmith was 25 years old — decrepit by NBA prospect standards — when a 10-day contract finally turned into a long-term job with the Heat.

Why did Highsmith make it while thousands who nursed similarly unlikely ambitions did not?

“Sometimes, people get told they’re not good enough or that they don’t have quite what it takes, and they quit right on that,” Sancomb said. “I think Haywood is just one of those guys who says, ‘That doesn’t mean I can’t get better. I’ve got to work on this.’ That’s why he’s been able to not just make it but thrive.”

Highsmith, 26, saw in himself qualities that others did not, and he wouldn’t give up.

“I think he got that from both of us,” said Highsmith’s father, Haywood Sr. “His mother [Brenda] is relentless at getting things done, and I’m kind of the same way.”

‘He just put the work in’

Haywood Sr. brought home a puppy and a basketball for his 2-year-old son when the family was living in Park Heights. “They tussled over the ball,” he recalled, laughing. “But Haywood actually grew into football first at Banneker Recreation Center and then the Park Heights Saints. It wasn’t until he hit a growth spurt at 11 or 12 that he decided he really wanted to play basketball completely.”

He was a good player by the time he transferred to Curley as a sophomore, but his name was not ringing out across Baltimore.


“It was just a matter of him not giving in to people saying he couldn’t,” said Brian Hubbard, who coached Highsmith over his final two high school seasons.

He had reached his full 6-foot-5 height, with arms that stretched below his kneecaps. But he had not built much muscle, and his jump shot wasn’t exactly pure. He was quiet, bordering on shy.

Even in those years of anonymity, however, teammates noticed how he never missed a workout or summer league game.

“Always worked the hardest in every drill, always came to practice on time,” remembered his best friend at Curley, Ricardo Johnson. “He just put the work in. … I was playing football, and we both had that championship mindset. That’s what made us close.”

McDonogh's Damian Chong-Qui, left, tries to elude Archbishop Curley's Haywood Highsmith Jr. during a game in November 2013. “Always worked the hardest in every drill, always came to practice on time,” remembered Highsmith's best friend at Curley, Ricardo Johnson. “He just put the work in."

Hubbard recalled the rough interior work Highsmith did in lieu of honing his perimeter game: “He was asked to do a lot as our best player, and he embraced that. He would lead us in scoring but also in rebounding, blocked shots, sometimes assists, steals.”

He was perhaps the best player in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference, so why didn’t recruiters come calling? “A lot of it had to do with us as a school,” Hubbard said. “If you’re outside looking in or you’re one of these Division I coaches, you’re not going to Archbishop Curley to recruit a kid. Guys just did not come out to watch us play.”


Haywood Sr. even tried pitching his alma mater, Fairmont State, where he had been a star player, to no avail.

Hubbard ultimately reached out to Sancomb, whom he’d played for in college, and Sancomb watched Highsmith in an AAU tournament in Atlantic City after his senior season at Curley.

“First time I ever saw him, I was like, ‘This is a no-brainer,’” Sancomb recalled. “He could shoot it, handle it, pass it. Always made the extra pass, always communicating. … But I think at the Division I level, they’re probably looking for a more finished project.”

Highsmith committed to Sancomb and Wheeling just before the start of the fall semester in 2014, determined to add that finish to his game.

Every evening after practice, he’d return to the gym for extra shooting. He prepared for each game with an hourlong shooting workout that left him drenched in sweat. He reached out to his father’s old college friend, Warren Doles, to help him bulk up with a summer workout program. As his body filled out and his jumpshots ripped the net more frequently, his confidence ballooned.

Though Highsmith made a leap forward every season in college, Sancomb was blown away when he showed up for preseason workouts his senior year. “Some guys don’t get that much better in college,” he said. “I remember from his sophomore year to his junior year, he made a big jump and I thought, ‘How much better can he really get?’ And then his senior year, I was like, ‘Oh my!’”


Wheeling had a good team, but no one on the roster had a prayer of stopping Highsmith in practice. When it was theoretically time to rest, he’d simply turn his jersey inside out and play for the ‘B’ team. No one said so explicitly, but Sancomb believes it was around this time that Highsmith began to regard an NBA career as a serious possibility.

“I thought to myself, ‘You could go professional with this,’ and it has always been a dream of mine, so it was nice to think like that,” Highsmith remembered in a 2022 interview with Wheeling’s athletics website. “All the hard work was finally paying off.”

‘They like those guys that have the grind’

Highsmith went undrafted after his bonanza senior season, but his agent, Jerry Dianis, encouraged him to keep his eye on the biggest prize.

Highsmith earned his first taste of the NBA in 2019, when he signed a two-way deal with the Philadelphia 76ers and averaged 1.8 points over five appearances. During that brief stint, he studied the habits and game day intensity of teammate Jimmy Butler, filing away everything he observed. Cool as those weeks were, Highsmith wanted to stick.

“We’re a religious family,” Haywood Sr. said. “We prayed on it, and he didn’t give up. He worked harder and harder and harder.”

After Highsmith played the 2020-21 season in Germany, he signed with an Italian team for 2021-22 but withdrew when the 76ers dangled another shot at the NBA. They waived him again. Then, the Heat called.


Those who love Highsmith say he could not have found a better NBA home than Miami, where the Heat have built a no-nonsense team that showcases overlooked gems. Even their best player, Butler, was discarded by several other franchises.

“They like those guys that have the grind,” Highsmith’s mother, Brenda, said.

Heat forward Haywood Highsmith (24) contests a shot by Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. during the second half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals on June 1 in Denver. Highsmith scored 18 points in 23 minutes, drawing praise from ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy.

Highsmith finds time to enjoy his 1-year-old daughter, Hazel, and video game marathons — Johnson said “Madden” is his specialty — with old pals. His mother, who has converted her co-workers at Northwest Hospital into ardent Heat fans, described him as “a hugger.” But he treats his career as serious business.

When he blocked a shot from his boyhood idol, Kevin Durant, his parents assumed he’d be over the moon. Nope.

“He said, ‘At the end of the day, when we’re on the court, we’re all basketball players,’” Brenda recalled. “It’s like he blocked all that out.”

Sancomb dined with Highsmith in Miami earlier this year. The Heat had come back from a trip to Washington at 3 a.m., but Highsmith was back on the practice court at 10 a.m., shooting for two hours.


“He’s telling me that at dinner, and I loved it,” Sancomb said. “Same person as he always was.”

Highsmith averaged career highs of 17.9 minutes and 4.4 points in 54 games this season. He has played sparingly in the postseason, but his breakouts — 15 points in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, that 18-point outburst against the Nuggets — grabbed the attention of national analysts such as Van Gundy.

“He’s taking it all in, but his mindset is, ‘I’m here and I belong here,’” said his high school friend, Johnson, who still communicates with him weekly. “He’s one of those guys from Baltimore where barely anybody talked about him, barely anyone knew him, but man, Haywood earned it.”

NBA Finals, Game 4

Nuggets at Heat

Friday, 8:30 p.m.


TV: Chs. 2, 7