Working to solidify his place in the professional basketball landscape, Delaware Blue Coats forward Haywood Highsmith maintains a humble and diligent mindset everywhere he goes, and for now, that is to the G League affiliate of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Highsmith was expected to sign what is known as an Exhibit 10 contract with the Phoenix Suns and join them at training camp, but he had a change of heart and returned to the 76ers organization under the same kind of contract. (Exhibit 10 deals pay the NBA’s minimum salary but include bonuses.)
It isn’t the first time that Highsmith has swallowed his pride to chase a basketball dream.
Ego can prevent talented young players from considering a college career in Division II, but Highsmith set his expectations to the side and bet on himself. The Baltimore native rose to the occasion and developed into a two-way menace during his four years at Wheeling Jesuit, a small university in West Virginia.
Highsmith improved his scoring and rebounding averages in each season with the Cardinals, culminating in a Mountain East Conference Player of the Year honor during his senior campaign.
Entering college as a lanky, unrefined prospect, Haywood dedicated himself to his craft and the culture built at WJU. He added the necessary muscle mass to impose his will physically while highlighting a versatile style of play that combines guard-like ball handling with the scoring and shooting skills of a small forward.
During his time at WJU, Haywood left a lasting impact on those around him. Danny Sancomb, who served as head coach during Highsmith’s tenure at WJU before taking over the head coaching vacancy at California University of Pennsylvania, saw Haywood’s work ethic on a nearly daily basis.
“He put in the time, he leads by example and he does things the right way,” Sancomb said. “I’ve been a head coach for about 15 or 16 years, he’s just been one of the (most fun) players that I’ve ever coached because of his attitude and willingness to do whatever the coach asks him to do.”
The ability to be coached is often overlooked, but Highsmith approaches the game differently. His attention to detail has put him in a position to thrive thus far during his young career, paying off with a two-way contract on the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2018-19 season.
For WJU assistant coach Ryan Kostur, Haywood’s innate understanding of the game is what sets him apart from the pack.
“The knowledge of the game—picking and choosing when to attack and when to pass—his overall basketball IQ is excellent,” Kostur said.
Highsmith’s meticulous approach enabled him to become a viable three-level scorer at the collegiate level. During his Conference Player of the Year season, the young wing averaged 22 PPG on 55.4-percent shooting from the field, 40.5-percent from 3-point range and 75.7-percent from the charity stripe. But that breakout came after a devastating third-round loss at the 2017 NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Atlantic Regional during Highsmith’s junior year.
As all great players do, Highsmith learned from the defeat and used it as motivation to improve.
“I remember standing in the locker room, you could tell he was getting emotional and it hurt. I went over to him and said, ‘Remember how this feels because next year is your year,’” Kostur recalled. “He made me look like a genius for saying that.”
Of the many skills that Highsmith leveraged into a scholarship coming out of high school, expanded range was simply not one of them. Once considered an average shooter, (hovering near the 35.5-percent 3-point shooting mark through his first three seasons of college), Highsmith used the offseason between his junior and senior years to improve his shooting percentage by 4.5 percent on 2.3 more attempts per game.
Although he only shot 33.3 percent from beyond the arc as a G League rookie, Sancomb maintains faith in his former player’s jump shot.
“He’s really improved his shooting, and I think last year, as the season went on, he wore down a little bit. That’s expected when you’re accustomed to playing 30 games,” Sancomb said. “His legs will stay under him this year and he’ll be more consistent.”
Consistency as a jump shooter takes practice, but consistency as a high-level, multi-positional defender comes from the internal desire to compete. Even during his days as a Cardinal, Highsmith exemplified 110 percent effort every time down the floor.
While undersized for a traditional power forward or center, the 6’7″ Highsmith was forced into various roles during his time at WJU. The five-out system implemented by Sancomb called for Highsmith to play out of position, where he asserted himself both as a defender and rebounder.
“The stat sheet didn’t show that he had a ton of blocked shots… but he changed a lot of shots and made people question about going to the lane with him in there,” Kostur said.
As the sport trends toward an emphasis on 3-point shooting and floor spacing, small-ball forwards have become a hot commodity. Thus, Highsmith’s lack of height doesn’t have to be a detriment as he works tirelessly to fill positions 2-through-4 as a pro.
Similarly to 2019 NBA Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam or three-time champion Draymond Green, Highsmith refined his handle in college and attained the ability to take the ball coast-to-coast with ease. From a defensive standpoint, he is capable of switching on the perimeter in addition to his exceptional help defense near the rim.
“We would switch ball screens with him all of the time because he was capable of guarding other people on the perimeter,” Sancomb said. “He’s got great length … he moves his feet well and he’s got good intelligence as far as when he should leave his feet and when he shouldn’t. He’s just under control.”
During his transition to the G League, Highsmith proved that he can assert himself on the defensive end each time down the floor. He finished the season with 13 games of two or more steals, including a game against the Erie BayHawks when he tallied five steals in 23 minutes. Utilizing his length and awareness, the rising talent disrupted passing lanes consistently in his first year.
Initial reports indicated that Highsmith would land a two-way contract in Phoenix, providing him the opportunity to work his way up on a young team Suns that could offer him legitimate minutes. That deal fell through, according to JD Shaw of Hoops Rumors. Instead, Highsmith returned to the Sixers on an Exhibit 10 deal that allowed him to participate in their training camp before rejoining the Blue Coats.
Highsmith has learned from 76ers coach Brett Brown over the course of his time as a pro. Brown said Highsmith took a path less traveled to get to where he is now and has the potential to carry that into a professional career moving forward.
“He’s a gracious person, and I think that he didn’t take anything for granted in his route to being where he is,” Brown said. “He’s still trying to move up the food chain, and I think he’s got talent and I think that his better days are ahead of him.”
While talent is certainly a deciding factor in the future of a young player, people within organizations remember an individual’s character and dedication to his or her craft. Highsmith not only left a lasting impression on his coaches but on their families, his teammates and all of the people surrounding the program at WJU.
Kostur, who personally attested to the impression Highsmith leaves on those around him, sees great potential for the young swingman’s future based on their time together.
“What he brings to the table is second to none because of his basketball IQ, the way that he works and the teammate that he will be…. He is a true professional in my eyes.”
At one point, after the 76ers cut him from their summer league team in 2018, he wondered if he even had a future in pro basketball.
“Once I got cut, I was definitely sad and upset,” Highsmith told Reid Forgrave of CBSSports.com last season when he was called up to the 76ers for a brief stint. “I called my mom: ‘Ma, I got cut.’ She told me, ‘Haywood, keep your head up. Everything’s going to work out. God is in your favor.’ But my head was all over the place. I honestly didn’t know where I was going to play after getting cut by the 76ers.”
The G League is a perfect setting for Highsmith to show his workhorse mentality and exemplary personality, but the young star will let his game speaks for itself.
His most valuable attribute might not be shooting, passing or handling the ball. It might be perseverance.
All stats courtesy of RealGM, Wheeling Jesuit and the official G League website.
Dylan Hunter Carter is a freelance sports journalist contributing to The Basketball Writers. He also currently covers the Spurs for Air Alamo and is a digital reporter for Cronkite News: Phoenix Sports covering the Phoenix Suns, ASU athletics and other local topics.