Haywood Highsmith is sitting inside a Denver hotel room laser focused. He’s hours away from a pivotal Game 5 as his team, the Miami Heat, is on the brink of elimination in the NBA Finals after a miraculous playoff run.

It’s the biggest game of his NBA career, and as he talks about his journey here from Baltimore, his thoughtful reflection is apparent.

The man Highsmith is at 26 years old marvels at the player he used to be. It’s been nine years since he was at Archbishop Curley High School, and he appreciates not only how far he’s come but also the times he nearly quit. He recognizes how much Baltimore bred him and crafted his style of play. He regrets taking his time at Curley for granted.

“I was completely different to where I am now,” Highsmith told The Baltimore Banner from Denver. “In high school I was not the hardest worker, not as far as practice, but getting up extra shots, being in the weight room and staying conditioned during the offseason. I wasn’t really locked in like that.

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“I was just going through the motions and thought it would be easy and that everything would come to me,” Highsmith continued.

Still, he’s here: a shining representation of his native home on the biggest stage in basketball. From Curley to the G League, he found an NBA team to give him a chance.

Shortly after Highsmith pulled down a rebound and committed a foul in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy gave viewers a quick overview of the 6-foot-5 forward.

“I like Highsmith,” the former NBA coach said. “I like his readiness. I like his ability to make shots. And, defensively, he’s active and solid.”

Highsmith was a positive for the Heat off the bench that night, finishing the loss tying a career high with 18 points in 23 minutes on 7-of-10 shooting.

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Highsmith’s performance in Game 1 saw him draining 3-point shots, cutting to the rim for easy baskets and guarding two-time MVP Nikola Jokic at times. It was more than just a positive, though. It was improbable when you consider his NBA journey.

Years ago, it would’ve been difficult to believe an undersize and introverted teenager from Curley would be playing valuable minutes in the NBA Finals.

His game was underdeveloped, and Highsmith isn’t afraid to say his work ethic was unserious and he was a bit lazy — there weren’t extra hours spent in the gym lifting or watching tape. The basketball player he was at Curley was hounded by coaches for playing soft, not going through contact. He’s the first to tell you he should’ve been better.

Being in the NBA was a pipe dream for Highsmith in high school. NCAA Division I offers weren’t coming because of how raw he was. He had height but lacked the speed, agility and muscle to compete in college.

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Despite the flaws in his game, Highsmith still had traits many his age lacked. They mattered if you wanted to make it out of Baltimore: toughness, heart, grit. He needed those to withstand the words he heard on the court, to deal with the physicality. Baltimore hoops gave him an edge.

“Growing up playing in Baltimore, I always knew I had to be on my toes when I’m out there,” Highsmith said. “I had to be a good defender because they’re going to tag you, call you out. Baltimore is a hardworking city, tough. … It definitely made me a tougher person. It’s not a place for everybody.

“I had to develop some toughness and some strength and just play with that edge. Growing up and playing against a few guys in Baltimore, it made me tougher and a better player.”

Without any Division I offers for Highsmith, his high school coach Brian Hubbard pitched him to Danny Sancomb, the head coach at Wheeling Jesuit University, a private Division II school in West Virginia. Sancomb was an assistant coach for Wheeling when Hubbard played a season there.

Sancomb, who now coaches at California University of Pennsylvania, extended a partial offer to Highsmith after watching him play in an AAU tournament before the start of the 2014 fall semester. It wasn’t a fully guaranteed offer, but he was impressed enough to believe Highsmith fit the team’s identity.

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Wheeling played a lot of small ball. Sancomb not only loved the potential of Highsmith’s passing but his ability to move without the ball, execute dribble handoffs and just grab a rebound and go.

“When he played, he just played the game the right way,” Sancomb told The Baltimore Banner. “It just seemed like he would be very coachable.”

There, secluded in the mountains of West Virginia, everything started to click. No distractions, just basketball. It was a culture shock for Highsmith — “West Virginia and Baltimore are two different places” — but it was an opportunity he needed.

It didn’t take long for Highsmith to make an impact. His attitude changed with his work ethic. He started to push himself.

Sancomb witnessed it firsthand, watching Highsmith extend his ball-handling and shooting range out from 15 feet while his body grew. The improvements Highsmith made on the floor from his freshman to his sophomore year were the biggest Sancomb has seen in a player. He got better every year.

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Even with a quiet demeanor, Highsmith’s impact on the program was loud. The mistakes he made in high school weren’t happening in college. He’d go back to the gym for extra practice, work with tenacity and rally his teammates for lifts. When taken out during practice, he’d flip his jersey over and play for the other team on the floor. He was more disciplined. Sancomb remembers once talking to Highsmith for being late to a 6 a.m. lift. It never happened again.

“I think that’s just a love of the game of basketball,” Sancomb said. “That’s why he’s able to work so hard at it, because he really does love it. Sometimes I think guys can get burned out with it. I think with his love for the game and his desire, I’ll never see that happening with him.”

So what flipped for Highsmith? He was in West Virginia for a reason, so he had to make it count. Plus Sancomb’s tough love.

“I’ve got to take advantage of it and make the most out of it,” Highsmith said. “I just never looked back. I got a free education and didn’t want to take it for granted.

“In high school I wasn’t the biggest worker, so I had to lock in. [Sancomb] really pushed me to where I thought I couldn’t do it anymore, but I had to fight through it, got through it and understand that he was trying to get the best out of me. I respect that. If somebody is hard on you, it’s always out of love.”

Highsmith won Division II National Player of the Year in 2018 after averaging 22 points, 11 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.8 blocks. (Wheeling University Athletics)

His body transformed him to his max height of 6-5 and a dominant Division II force over the next four years. Highsmith led the Cardinals to the Mountain East tournament in all four seasons, including propelling the team to its first regional tournament run in 2016-17. He won Division II National Player of the Year in 2018 after averaging 22 points, 11 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.8 blocks. He finished as the third-leading scorer in school history with 1,952 points.

“Through Haywood’s four years, not only did he improve dramatically as a player but the steps and bounds he improved as a student in the classroom and in every area – he just kept continuing to grow and grow,” Sancomb said. “I think being in an area like that where you can really be focused – I think that really helped.”

He still went undrafted, signing with the G League’s Delaware Blue Coats off an open tryout. In January 2019 the Philadelphia 76ers signed him to a two-way deal, and he split time between both teams. He played five games for the Sixers before being waived that summer.

He started 2019-20 with the Blue Coats before playing in Germany for the 2020-21 campaign. Doubts about his future in the NBA crept in, but faith and the support of friends and family kept him in good spirits. They would tell him, keep going, keep working. God has a plan for you.

“I think it’s survival of the fittest; the strong will survive,” Sancomb added. “I think, in that profession, it’s so true. You’re going to be told no at times and that you’re not good enough at times and just having the mental fortitude and desire to continue to fight. When you think of Baltimore, you think of a tough, scrappy, city. I think Haywood definitely symbolizes that with how he plays and how he approaches things.”

At the start of the 2021-22 season, Highsmith returned to the Blue Coats an improved player. He was part of Delaware’s run to the G League Championship Showcase Cup in December 2021. That resulted in him being eligible to get a 10-day contract via the hardship exemption while the NBA battled through shortened rosters because of the COVID-19 omicron surge.

Again, an opportunity arrived. He took advantage.

Highsmith joined the Heat on a road trip determined to show he belonged. With Miami, he already had connections, too. He has the same personal trainer as Heat center Bam Adebayo and knew Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin from the G League.

Although Highsmith’s first contract with the Heat expired and he returned to Delaware, Miami brought him back on two more 10-day contracts a month later. He signed a three-year deal with the Heat in December 2022. Finally, NBA stability.

He’s embraced the opportunity and the Heat’s unique culture, grinding his way and being ready at head coach Erik Spoelstra’s disposal for whatever, whenever.

“You’ve got to have a lot of mental stability,” Highsmith explained. “They’re going to push you; they’re going to test your limits. They saw that underdog in me and understood that I’m going to work my hardest.”

He scored 15 points off the bench in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, in addition to his 18-point effort versus the Nuggets that caught Van Gundy’s attention.

In that Game 1, he took a dish from Kyle Lowry for a layup and threw down a dunk after cutting to the rim minutes later. He scored seven consecutive points to help the Heat cut a 21-point deficit to single digits.

“That’s what we need from everybody, regardless of when you’re coming into the game, the minutes you’re getting,” Spoelstra said of Highsmith after. “Those inspiring minutes, that’s what our team is about — having a roster of guys that just come out there and [are] making great efforts. You’re impacting the game, and it inspires the next guy to do it.”

Although his minutes have dropped since Game 1 as the Heat have adjusted their rotation, Highsmith hasn’t changed his mindset. Whether it’s five or 23 minutes off the bench, he’s ready for whatever is thrown at him. The toughness of Baltimore and everything he endured has prepared him.

“It’s not where you start; it’s where you finish. My journey has been so much different than a lot of NBA players, and I kept my head down and worked. I had plenty of chances to give up — when I got waived, when I was in Germany — but the main point is keep going. Run your own race. It’s going to be ups and downs in anything in life, and basketball is the same way.”

aron.yohannes@thebaltimorebanner.com