Tuesday night in Philadelphia, when Haywood Highsmith Jr. walked out to the floor of the Wells Fargo Center, it was the beginning of one of the most unlikely NBA careers in recent memory.
A few hours before the Philadelphia 76ers were scheduled to tip off against the Washington Wizards, Highsmith — a long and athletic six-foot-seven 22-year-old — signed a two-way contract alongside 76ers general manager Elton Brand. Under normal circumstances, an NBA player signing a two-year deal in which he can go back and forth between the 76ers and their G League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats, would not merit much of a mention.
But Highsmith’s circumstances are not normal.
Highsmith had yet to practice with the team. As of Tuesday afternoon, he hadn’t spoken with head coach Brett Brown about his role. But the 76ers are banged up, so Highsmith was active on Tuesday, and he thought he could actually get some minutes. That meant he was joining Milwaukee Bucks two-way guard Jaylen Morris as the only two players on active NBA rosters whose sole collegiate experience came at the Division II level. (Morris played at Molloy College in New York.)
Highsmith, who grew up in West Baltimore as a huge Kevin Durant fan, played four years at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. He graduated in May, not long after winning Division II player of the year honors. He didn’t know what would be next for him. He didn’t get invited to the Portsmouth Invitational, which is the typical route for college seniors not considered elite prospects to make it to the NBA, but he drove to Portsmouth with his agent, Jerry Dianis, anyway, just to get face time with NBA executives. Dianis contacted every team in the NBA to drum up interest in Highsmith. But it’s tough even getting a look from an NBA team when you don’t have the pedigree. Only one team responded: The 76ers. Highsmith wanted to try the NBA instead of going overseas, even if going overseas meant a more lucrative immediate contract.
“I figured that since my game translates to the NBA, I might as well give it a shot with the G League or the NBA,” Highsmith told CBSSports.com.
Highsmith scored an invite to the 76ers’ Summer League training camp. He played well – only to get cut the day before the 76ers were leaving for Las Vegas. But the 76ers left Highsmith with something positive, saying he could still be in their future plans.
“Once I got cut, I was definitely sad and upset,” Highsmith said. “I called my mom: ‘Maw, 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. I had my parents saying to stay positive, to stay focused, that God is in your favor.”
Sure enough, the 76ers put Highsmith on their G League roster, and in 22 games this season, he has excelled: He’s averaged 33.4 minutes and 13.5 points, hitting threes at a 40-percent clip. When the 76ers traded Robert Covington in November, they knew that they had a Covington-like player – a long and athletic shooter with high defensive potential but without the collegiate pedigree – in the G League. Highsmith also sees himself as a Covington in the making: A glue guy, an energy guy, someone who can defend the other team’s best player and knock down shots.
Brand told CBSSports.com that he’s excited to see how Highsmith can continue to develop in this next big step of his career.
“Haywood is a talented wing who has had significant success in the G League this season,” Brand said in a text message. “He has a great work ethic, provides good energy and is committed to impacting the game on both ends of the floor.”
“Elton Brand was a visionary in this,” added Dianis, Highsmith’s agent. “Nobody else even gave him a workout. Elton gave him a chance to work out, and Elton really believed in him. Anybody can predict and say Zion Willamson will be good. You earn your money in finding Haywood Highsmith and players like him. This guy can play. He might play in the NBA 10 or 12 years even though you got people who didn’t give him a chance.”
But before talking about a long career, he had to play in his first game. And on Tuesday afternoon, Highsmith was trying to figure a way to get his mother from Baltimore to Philadelphia for that game. She was at work, though, so he hadn’t even had a chance to call her to tell her the big news. The news didn’t even feel real. Not yet.
“This only happens once,” Highsmith said a few hours before tipoff. “I have to enjoy this and love it. I feel like I’m dreaming. I don’t feel like it’s sunk in yet. I think it will once I’m standing there in the biggest arena I’ve ever been to in my life.”
The game turned into a blowout. With 5:14 left in the fourth quarter, Highsmith got the call from his coach. He went to the scorer’s table and checked in for T.J. McConnell. On his fourth offensive possession as an NBA player, Shake Milton tossed Highsmith the ball on the wing, and there was no hesitation: He caught the ball, turned and fired from 27 feet: Swish. His first NBA shot, and his first three NBA points.
There’s a lesson in what Highsmith’s agent referred to as a “real-life Horatio Alger story.” It’s not just about having faith in yourself and in God, or working hard, or never giving up, although it’s certainly about all of those things. With Highsmith, it’s about surrounding yourself with positivity, so that people lift you up when you’re feeling down.
“Have people around you who’ll just make you a better person on and off the court. I could have quit a million times as a basketball player,” Highsmith said. “But I had people around me who made me feel good about myself. Don’t doubt yourself. Have people around you to motivate you to be a better person. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I didn’t have these people in my life that support me.”
Two-way contracts may not be the most lucrative compared to full-time NBA deals, but it’s certainly a step up from the $35,000 or so he was making in the G League. Was Highsmith planning to go out and buy a shiny new sports car to celebrate?
“I’m definitely going to spend my money wisely,” he said. “I’m going to stick with my Nissan Altima for right now.”