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The Locksmith: Haywood Highsmith Bet On His Future And Made Himself Part Of Miami’s Present

Many would have played it safe.

Haywood Highsmith was no stranger to the stylings of Jayson Tatum. The two had already been matched up for 52 of Tatum’s half-court possessions in the regular season, during which Highsmith had more than held his own. A Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals, with your team having lost three in a row, is a different proposition. Highsmith had to earn his ticket to this opportunity. These were the proving grounds.

The first time down the floor, Highsmith expertly dodges an up fake Tatum uses to try and draw the foul. The second time down the floor, Highsmith has his moment. You couldn’t blame most players for choosing the path of least risk. Stay solid. Stay square. Contest what you can contest. Don’t get beat. That’s not the path Highsmith chooses. Tatum plays with the ball, right-to-left, left-to-right, setting Highsmith up with staccato. As Tatum begins to bring the ball back between his legs, Highsmith reaches for the outside hand. He’s in it now. Either he’s getting the ball, or Tatum is getting past him.

“I always tell people, don’t crossover in front of me,” Highsmith says. “Sometimes it gets me in trouble though because I reach and I don’t get it and they go by me, but usually I do get it.”

His fingertips make landfall with leather and, giving-and-going with Gabe Vincent, Highsmith finishes on the other end to complete the pick-six.

“I watch a good amount of film on a lot of top players and I can just see when a crossover is coming,” Highsmith says. “He just set it up, set it up, set it up. I can’t even explain how I did it, but I could just see it coming and I’ve been picking dudes for a minute now.”

That would be Highsmith’s only score. He would only play nine minutes, finishing plus-three. Amid heroics from Jimmy Butler and Caleb Martin and the jubilation at winning a Game 7 on the road for a second trip to the NBA Finals in four years, few gave Haywood’s shift a second thought. For him, for where he was and where he wanted to be in his career, those minutes were monumental.

“It kind of gave me more confidence that I’m built for this, that I’m meant to be in these types of games that mean a lot,” he says.

Six months later, Highsmith now firmly in Miami’s night-to-night rotation, DeMar DeRozan tries the same slow-to-fast crossover with Highsmith in front of him. It doesn’t go any better for him than it did for Tatum. Afterwards, Highsmith can only say, “I saw it coming.”

When it comes to Highsmith’s journey to NBA relevance, nobody else can say the same.

LOCKED DOORS

Highsmith shouldn’t be in the NBA. Not statistically, at least.

Division II players are no strangers to the league, but you can’t exactly throw a dart and expect to hit one of their names on a depth chart. At any given point there might not be a single player with Division II experience on a roster, and those that are – Max Strus and Duncan Robinson, to name a couple – eventually transferred to a Division I program during their collegiate years. A true four-year Division II player is more of a unicorn than the many players who have been labeled such over the years.

As Highsmith finished his senior year at Wheeling University, earning a host of First Team and Player of the Year accolades, nobody came knocking. The phones weren’t ringing. Highsmith wasn’t invited to the Draft Combine, and he wasn’t part of the draft workout process. He was such an unknown that going undrafted wasn’t just an expectation, it was nearly a foregone conclusion. Highsmith and his agent, Jerry Dianis, considered the overseas route but settled on pursuing the G-League. A couple private workouts went nowhere.

“It was a tough time in terms of expectations,” Dianis says. “From the moment I met him I thought he was an NBA talent because of his size, his ability to shoot the ball, his strength, seven-foot-plus wingspan and everyone in the league was after that coveted 3-and-D type of role.”

Fortunately, Wheeling had played an exhibition against Division I West Virginia during Highsmith’s junior season, and film of that 22-point, 10-rebound performance wound up on the desk of then-Delaware Blue Coats GM and eventual-Philadelphia 76ers GM Elton Brand. It was enough to earn Highsmith a workout that would lead to a spot with the Blue Coats and, perhaps most important, earn him a fan.

“He was the only guy that really gave me a chance,” Highsmith says of Brand, who he stays in touch with. “Without him I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have been on no G-League team. I probably would have been overseas like a regular Division II superstar player in a sense.”

Playing 46 games for the Blue Coats that season, Highsmith had his foot inside a door that is typically sealed shut for players with his background, but he had no illusions of shortcuts.

“Sometimes there’s not really a blueprint for undrafted guys because there’s so many different paths for them to make it. Or more often than not, not make it,” Erik Spoelstra says. “It’s usually the discouragement and guys lose their persistence. They feel like the doors are closed and they end up not being the best versions of themselves. The ones that are able to overcome that with some mental toughness present in a better way. We kind of like that, guys that do end up getting cut a few times just to see if they are in that bucket of discouragement or in the bucket that they’re going to do whatever it takes.”

ALONE

Two years later, Highsmith found himself all by himself sitting in an apartment in Crailsheim, a small German town with a population of 33,021.

His two seasons in the G-League went well enough. Midway through the first year Brand signed Highsmith to his first two-way contract, appearing in five games including a 23-point loss to the Miami HEAT in the second-to-last game of the season. A couple months later the 76ers waived him, but he remained in the developmental pipeline, accepting an Exhibit 10 contract to partake in training camp before ending up back with Delaware. Then, COVID-19 hit and the G-League season was eventually cancelled. It would not return until almost a full calendar year later, in February of 2021.

If Highsmith wanted to play, he had to look elsewhere. And so he wound up in that apartment in Germany, overseas for just the second time that he could remember, the world around him closed off and in turmoil as he just tried to match-up time zones with his friends back home.

“I ain’t gonna lie, I was playing video games so much. I had a group chat with a whole bunch of friends back in the States, we would just text ‘Madden’,” he says.

Highsmith appreciated the opportunity, getting out to see the rest of Germany when it was possible, and adding something different to the ol’ resume never hurts, but he felt it wasn’t quite for him. Being somewhere else sometimes makes you appreciate the somewhere you started.

“It kind of helped me in the sense that, whether in was the G-League or the NBA, I cherished playing in the states,” Highsmith says. “It just feels different, year round, [there’s] more people like you, it’s a different culture, people speaking the same language as you, it’s different just to be on the same time zone. It was a lot of mental struggles, a lot of being alone, isolated.”

The experience ended without glory or fanfare. Highsmith tore a ligament in his elbow and missed the end of the season and playoffs. And because you’re often only as good as your last season, there would be no offers for a spot on a Summer League team.

Little did Highsmith know at the time, but the most important decision of his life was just around the corner.

ARRIVEDERCI

Everyone comes to a fork in the road eventually. To the left lies the path that points towards your dream, such as that dream is a reality that could even exist. Down that trail lies unforeseen dangers. For some it may just be some potholes and some overgrown brambleweed. For others, a cliff face and torrential weather. There is no map, no guarantee that the traveler will ever reach their destination, but it’s a path anyone can walk. On the right, the road is paved. There are signs, landmarks and rest stops. That way lies a different horizon, and perils persist, but the trail is clear.

There’s no right answer. Nobody can be told with absolute certainty which way they should turn. Especially, as many find at a certain stage of life, when they’re not alone.

After 2021 Summer League came and went without an opportunity, Highsmith signed a contract with Vanoli Cremona of the Italian Serie A League. Dianis had negotiated an out in case an NBA team offered an Exhibit 10 contract, often nothing more than an invite to training camp, and with Highsmith already in Italy by August the 76ers circled back around.

This decision didn’t come so easy. His girlfriend was pregnant, and their daughter was due in October.

“I was going to make way more [in Italy] if I didn’t get called up,” Highsmith says. “I’m like, this is a big decision, so at first I said I got to stay in Italy, I need to make money for my daughter, my family, I’m about to have a child. It’s about to be a lot. But we discussed it, talked it over, this is an opportunity that doesn’t come around a lot.”

“It’s a bet on yourself situation.”

Highsmith took the chance. 76ers training camp began on September 27 that season. By September 30, he was waived. Back to the G-League. No guarantees. No safety net. But it was already the right decision.

“Thank god I came back and I got to see the birth,” Highsmith said. “I had a good father so I wanted to just take a lesson from him and try to be there for my child. I had to understand that the finances are not the most important thing. It’s about being there.”

One of the things Erik Spoelstra likes most about Highsmith is that he never tries to be someone else. No matter where he is, Highsmith plays the same. When Highsmith played Summer League for the HEAT two years ago, he didn’t try to up his usage rate and post numbers that would have executives repeating his name on the concourse at Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV. “Most young players, or players that are trying to make it, they use Summer League to try to do a whole lot more and show that they have more ability, and they end up playing poorly because of it,” Spoelstra says. “And it’s not even the same role they would have for the main team.” That July, Highsmith averaged about the same 13.5 points a game as he did the fall before with the Blue Coats, all the pressures of a newborn daughter weighing down on him.

If Highsmith was going to make it, he was going to make it as the player he knew he could be. He didn’t know it at the time, but that was exactly the type of thinking Miami was looking for.

“You have to embrace being a role player and most guys unfortunately won’t embrace that,” Spoelstra says.

WHO IS THIS GUY?

Adam Simon keeps a list.

At any given point in time, the HEAT’s Vice President of Basketball Operations and Assistant General Manager has a collection of names at every position – archetype, rather – that are ready to be signed out of the G-League should a spot on the roster open up via injury or transaction. It’s a nice idea to think that each of those names is perfectly scouted, that Simon and his staff, with Keith Askins and Eric Amsler major contributors to the team’s developmental pipeline, know exactly what each player can do and what roles they can fill. That list, which can change by the hour some days, is as much about gathering intelligence as any amount of film you watch or numbers you break down. “There’s no exact science to it,” Simon says. “Sometimes it’s right place, right time.”

Highsmith was almost in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Part of the idea of having such a list made ahead of time is that you limit the amount of scrambling required in high pressure situations, but in the winter between 2021 and 2022 with every team dealing with health and safety protocols and the resulting absences mounting there was no dodging the scramble.

Miami had avoided the first wave of COVID, which at the time appeared fortuitous but as a result far more players than usual were being called up and moved around the country. Keeping track of who was and wasn’t available when half your team could be ruled ineligible to play the morning of a game was no easy task. After Christmas, it was the HEAT’s turn to figure things out. With players already entering protocols, Miami beat the Washington Wizards at home on December 28, using just eight players. Ahead of that game, they had signed Zylan Cheatham as a replacement to help meet the eight-player minimum. That night, after beating the Wizards, the HEAT flew to San Antonio for what was supposed to be a back-to-back, forced to leave Gabe Vincent behind after Vincent tested positive. The next morning, Cheatham was placed in health and safety protocols and, with the addition of a couple new injuries to their report, Miami only had hours to field a team.

To expedite the process, with so many of the league’s rosters in chaos and general managers scrambling to keep tabs on where in the country players physically were, Dianis gave the HEAT a call.

“There are a few teams that do a good job with undrafted guys and Miami is at the top of the list.” Dianis says. “Miami, they’re the Rolls Royce of NBA franchises in terms of developing players.”

Miami was a target franchise not only because they had the track record of developing players, Dianis says, but the stability to allow the developmental process to play out in full. When a coach isn’t looking over his shoulder, they can focus on moves that translate to wins.

“He plays guys that he thinks are going to help the team win regardless of stature, he doesn’t have the pressure that other organizations have,” Dianis says of Spoelstra. “He’s got the respect, being a Hall of Fame coach and having the continuity in the franchise, it allows him to play who he deems ready to play regardless of their contract status. That doesn’t happen often in the NBA.”

Highsmith was on Miami’s radar by that point. He had played well for the Blue Coats as they advanced in the G-League Showcase earlier that month, and Simon had spoken to someone that had worked with Highsmith in the past that Miami would be getting a “really tough and hardworking” player if they brought him in. With such little time make a decision, Simon says “that was enough for me”.

Problem was, Highsmith was in Delaware and the game was that night. He and Dianis tried to find a flight that could get him to San Antonio in time. There weren’t any. The league canceled the game anyway due to inclement weather. Simple travel logistics had cost Highsmith the opportunity he had been waiting for.

Still, Highsmith kept his bags packed. He didn’t know when or where or even if he was going anywhere, but he knew it was a possibility. As Miami traveled to Houston the next day, the HEAT called again. As Highsmith was leaving practice with the Blue Coats, he got a call from Dianis. “It was like, ‘Oh, s***, I gotta go,’” Highsmith remembers.

Hours later, he’s checking into his room in Houston, waiting for instructions. He doesn’t remember who the first person he spoke to in the organization was, but with such a condensed timeline it wasn’t until he had feet on the ground.

Spoelstra, who “had never heard the name Haywood Highsmith before”, was just trying to figure out who he had. To hear Simon tell it, Spoelstra’s first question was something along the lines of, ‘who the h*** is Haywood Highsmith?’

“I trust Adam and his staff implicitly, I like to give him a hard time when he brings a name to us,” Spoelstra says, confirming the nature of his initial reaction. “I just asked, who is this guy and what is his resume.

“Adam knows me well enough that he comes out with the biggest selling points. He’s a great defender, Swiss Army Knife guy, winning player, fills in a bunch of different gaps, knows how to play a role and has upside in what we do. Whereas other people might not view a guy like him with upside because he’s a little bit older, he’s already gone through the NBA circuit. But for us we like a little bit of experience, we like guys that have shown some grit and perseverance and an ability to not get discouraged. I think that’s a talent.”

Spoelstra then called up Coby Karl, Highsmith’s coach in Delaware, who offered similar reviews. Glue guy. Winner. Impact player. Makes all the right plays. “That catches my attention,” Spoelstra says.

Highsmith would score nine points in 14 minutes against Houston, eventually signing three 10-day contracts as per modified league rules during that period before signing on for the rest of the season in March (there were other suitors, but the HEAT circled back around with a firm offer before anyone else). While they were largely in blowouts, Highsmith would make eight appearances in the postseason before Miami lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

SLOW DOWN, SAY MORE

Even though Highsmith spent over half the season and about five months with the team that first season, it was a while before anyone had a real sense of who he was.

“He don’t speak. He just don’t talk,” Bam Adebayo says, recalling his first impression of Highsmith during his first stretch with the team.

“It takes a minute for me to get out of my shell,” says Highsmith. He’s been prodded constantly by HEAT assistant Caron Butler, who Highsmith watched growing up during Butler’s time with the Washington Wizards, to let his voice be heard, to call out the plays and schemes and coverages he can see coming or that need be communicated.

“He’s been doing a great job of moving the needle in that space,” Butler says. “The more confident he gets, you see him talking more.”

It wasn’t until Highsmith’s second year with the HEAT, with Miami playing in Washington, that Adebayo’s eyes really opened up to who Highsmith was. Hailing from Baltimore, Highsmith had a ton of family members and supporters at the game to see him that night. Visiting with them afterwards, he was comfortable, in his own context.

“It was just real dope to see because you have guys like that who get half a step of opportunity and they go through the door, it really puts it into perspective when you look at a guy and be like, ‘It’s really not common for [someone like] him to get to the NBA,” Adebayo says, recalling a lengthy conversation he had with Highsmith that night after meeting some of his family members.

The game against Washington which preceded that conversation was almost one of Highsmith’s worst. Getting his second career start with Adebayo and Jimmy Butler both unavailable, Highsmith was 2-of-10 through three quarters. Nothing was going right.

“He was just having a bad game,” Adebayo says. “Not a bad game where he wasn’t playing hard, but you just have days where s*** just goes wrong. You’re turning the ball over, not making shots, not making the right read, one of those game where you’re like, ‘Y’all, I’m really in mud today.’ Coaches were beating him up, players beating him up, we’re all screaming at him.”

Highsmith took it in stride, shooting 3-of-5 in the fourth quarter to help force overtime where Miami would lose by one. Highsmith wound up playing 41 minutes, still his career high.

Three days later, the HEAT are in Minnesota. Dealing with an illness, Adebayo is not with the team at the arena but he’s watching Highsmith closely. Highsmith finishes with 12 points on seven shots and a plus-seven in game the HEAT lose by four.

“If I could snapshot that game and send it to him, I’d say that was the game where it really slowed down for him,” Adebayo says. “Ever since then he’s been ascending. One of those things where he kind of had to hit the bottom for it to really feel what that pain feels like, where you feel like you let your teammates down. He put that into perspective of, ‘I don’t want to let my teammates down’. That game right there, I was like, ‘Nah, H is hooping today’.

From then on, Highsmith played nearly 20 minutes a game. Not every game, with the team trying to stay out of the Play-In Tournament the rotation was almost constantly in flux, but he was always in the conversation.

“At that point, it’s like I already know,” Spoelstra says. “I feel comfortable plugging-and-playing him at any time, against anyone. These can be plug minutes and I feel fully comfortable with that. By the time you get to the end of the year and the playoffs, these were not even hard decisions to play him.”

“He’s always at the forefront of everybody’s thinking because he’s earned that,” Butler says.

Most players who enter the HEAT’s player development program are, in some way, a part of the plan. That doesn’t guarantee those players a future in said plan, but when they’re acquired – on draft night, as a free agent, in a trade – the team has time to map out what they could be two or three years down the road if things go right. The team didn’t quite have that luxury with Highsmith, an emergency signing. He made himself part of the plan.

THE NOW OF IT ALL

Miami’s defense, at least since Jimmy Butler joined the franchise, has never been better than it was when P.J. Tucker started alongside Adebayo.

You can slice the numbers up any which way you want to, when Tucker and Adebayo were on the court together during the 2021-22 season, Miami’s Defensive Rating in those minutes were perpetually of Top 5 if not Top 1 quality. Miami switched about 28 screens per 100 possessions that season, but with Adebayo and Tucker on the floor that number rose to 42 per 100, always allowing less than a point per possession. Since Tucker left that offseason, those numbers have gradually fallen as Spoelstra has dialed up more drop coverage, and zone, to fit his personnel, Miami now switching about 15.4 screens per 100 – but when Highsmith and Adebayo are on the floor that number is back up to 21.2. In those switches with Highsmith and Adebayo playing, granted a smaller sample at just 220, Miami has allowed just 0.82 points per direct pick, according to Second Spectrum, which would rank as the best screen switching defense in the league. The past few weeks have shown Miami can find defensive success in a variety of styles, but when it’s brass knuckle time in the postseason, switching remains the style that counters the deadliest of foes.

There’s good reason for all of that, too. Adebayo is at the top of the list each season in terms of efficiency allowed defending isolations, and Highsmith’s numbers – through mid-December he was No. 1 in the entire league – have been right behind him, currently sitting at 0.95 points per isolation allowed. Take out assist opportunities, which the defender has less control over, and that number drops to 0.91. Take out fouls from there – Highsmith has had a number of 50/50 calls go against him where at times he’s defended a pull-up jumper almost too well, his reputation not quite earned with the whistles – and he’s down to 0.83, a stop or two away from Adebayo’s 0.75 with the same filters.

Altogether, Highsmith – second on the team in Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus – has a good argument for being one of the best, and most versatile, wing defenders in the league. Few will make that argument today given Highsmith has barely played 2,000 minutes in his career, but the reputation is gaining faster than the general public may realize.

“They call him Locksmith for a reason,” Adebayo says. “When you have a guy you consider a Swiss Army Knife, that’s gold for us.”

“Bam has really helped me a lot especially on the defensive end, because he knows what kind of defender I can be, what kind of tandem we can be,” Highsmith says. “Honestly, I think he likes playing next to me.”

There aren’t many teams that can boast less rotational stability than the HEAT this season, though a good argument can be made for all those lineups being more of a big-picture feature than a bug. After the HEAT’s four-game losing streak in the season’s opening, Highsmith slid into the starting lineup where, as such a natural fit next to Adebayo especially now that his percentages from three have stabilized in the high 30’s on similar volume to Tucker, it looked like he might stay all season. Then injuries hit pretty much the entire rotation and Highsmith’s role fluctuated with the punches, rejoining the starting group for a stretch before settling into a regular, night-to-night bench role. During Miami’s current five-game winning streak, he’s playing 22 minutes a night, a stabilizer on defense, a disrupting force in the margins, keeping possessions alive and making plays that wouldn’t exist were it not for him.

Free agency looms this offseason, but for now, six years after his first behind-the-scenes tryout for a G-League spot, Highsmith has finally found a consistent role he can call his own without having to be anything other than himself.

“I’m just a worker,” he says. “The grind doesn’t stop for me. I wouldn’t be here without putting in the work. It’s been a long journey, and I’m still putting in more work.”