NBA Summer League is a showcase for some players and a first glimpse at professional life for others. While fans will understandably obsess over the highlights of top draft picks, the real life stakes are high for other players hoping to convert opportunity into an NBA career. Perhaps no one typifies this as much as Haywood Highsmith. “Yeah, it’s a big week for me,” said Highsmith after practice Thursday.
Highsmith, in many ways, is the prototype of what the 76ers are building. His 6’7″ frame is complimented by a 7’0″ wingspan. He entered the pros as a bit of an unknown even through last summer. He first stood out in G-League training camp and quickly became a player that the Blue Coats could count on to guard the point of attack and switch 1-4. His offensive game was in need of a transition from playing a traditional power forward role in college to a professional wing. 3-and-D is the blueprint for Highsmith who earned a two way NBA contract in January.
In a league where some players will ignore their coaches’ schematic instruction to try to “get theirs,” Highsmith embraced the process and did whatever was asked from him. He was a defensive Swiss Army knife who could reroute ball handlers to give Norvel Pelle time to get into help position for a blocked shot. He was also often able to be the “V-Back” to allow Pelle or another center to contest shots. The V Back responsibility is to recover on the center’s man and deny the easy dump off.
“I know the offense. I know the 4, I know the 3, definitely a lot of stretch 4, shoot a lot of threes. Space the floor for the big man who can be a roller.”
As NBA Summer League starts, this looks to be his primary duty, and this is why the stakes are so high for him. The Sixers have invested heavily in wing defenders. Haywood spoke candidly Thursday after practice about his role. “Zhaire and Matisse are great defenders, maybe even as good or better than me, so I’ll be playing the 4.”
And honestly this is where sacrifice for team success can become precarious for a player hovering right on the edge between NBA and G-League life. Being put at the power forward spot in a summer league game is perhaps the worst place for a player to stand out. The paint tends to get overloaded, and tipped rebounds and heavy traffic can make the game look quick chaotic at times. Smallish power forwards will struggle to stand out in these situations. And yet, as a 4 man, you are somewhat at the mercy of your guards to get you the ball offensively to look good.
Defensively the 4, they don’t want us switching everything anymore, just kind of hedge on screens and get back to your man.”
Summer league typically is a guards style game. Long range shooters and advanced dribble players tend to look the best, while big men suffer in the chaos.
Fortunately, Connor Johnson and Lindsey Harding know Haywood and his game well enough to look beyond the box score and see the little details that will ultimately matter when fall turns to winter. So be on the lookout for Haywood, Shake Milton, Zhaire Smith, and Matisse Thybulle as they begin summer league play Friday night in Vegas.
While Haywood is playing in NBA summer league, his training team, DMV Academy, will be in Vegas at the Eurobasket showcase this weekend. We will cover this, as well as summer league games themselves. Stay tuned.