Get to know Sixers rookie Haywood Highsmith

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Get to know Sixers rookie Haywood Highsmith

On Tuesday night, Haywood Highsmith became just the second active Division II basketball player to receive an NBA call-up. Hours before the Sixers tipped off, Highsmith had just finished playing in a game for the Delaware Blue Coats, before driving to the Sixers practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, to sign his two-way contract.

Before the game, even head coach Brett Brown said he likely wouldn’t see any time for quite a while.

But Highsmith’s story has been everything but predictable, so when Brown called his number with 5:14 left in the fourth quarter in Tuesday night’s win over the Wizards, he once again defied the odds.

From Baltimore, Maryland, to Wheeling Jesuit University, to getting cut from the Sixers' summer league roster to being signed in the G-League, to stepping up on the NBA stage for the first time in his life, it’s been quite the ride for the Sixers rookie.

We wanted to get know a little bit more about the newest addition to the Sixers' roster.

Let’s starts with basketball as a kid … who introduced you to the game, when did you first pick up a basketball and what was your relationship like with the sport growing up?

My father really introduced me to the game, because he played basketball until his college years. We’ve really bonded over it. I probably started playing around the age of two or three but started shooting on a regular hoop at like four or five.

Can you remember the first time that you beat your dad on the court?

I think I was like 13 and I went up for a dunk and almost made it. So after that, he's like, okay. I think I'm getting too old for this. This is crazy.

After playing four years at small school Wheeling Jesuit, Division II player of the year, you’re having trouble getting any NBA teams to meet with you … Are you still thinking that you'll be able to make basketball a career? Or is that when doubt starts to creep in?

Yeah. I didn't know what path I was going to take, whether I was going to go overseas or try to play in the G-League, but I talked with my family and got an agent who definitely thought that I was an NBA-caliber player, and we stuck with a good plan. There were definitely some ups and downs throughout the path, to where I am now, but this was one of the organizations that gave me an opportunity and it was really inspiring for me to just get an opportunity like that. Some doubt definitely came in every now and then, but I always felt like I could play overseas somewhere. The question to me was if I could play in the-G League or the NBA.

Take me through some of those ups and downs…

You definitely have to have mental toughness as a person to go through stuff like that. I got cut from the Sixers' summer league team, a day before they left for Las Vegas, which was kind of hard to swallow as a person, as a basketball player. But, when you have a family support system like I do, they always encouraged me and kept making me feel positive. We just stuck to a path and stayed patient and like people said, good things come to those who wait, and a good thing came with the G-League team.  

So when you got the call-up, and after your Blue Coats game that you played in earlier that day, that you’re going to be with the Sixers, what’s going through your mind?

My mind was just going a lot of places. Was this really happening? Was I dreaming?

And then, I had to go straight from my game against Raptors 905 to Camden (where the Sixers' facility is) to sign, and then straight from signing to the arena to play for the Sixers.

And then, not even a practice and probably don’t expect to get time, but you score your first NBA bucket, and it so happens to come from your Blue Coats teammate, Shake Milton.  What do you think you'll remember most from that night?

I'll probably consider that like one of the greatest days of my life right now. A lot of memories, putting that jersey on and walking out to the crowd in probably the biggest arena I've played in since I played basketball, just joyful. From where I came from, and just to be a part of something like that. It's just crazy to see how that happens and my family was there. One of the greatest days of my life definitely.

Time for some fan questions …

How did you come to get arguably the best basketball name ever?

Me and my father actually share the same name. He's a senior and I'm a junior. I've heard that a lot that I've had a great basketball name. Every time I was in school and my teacher announced my name on the first day, they would always say, ‘Wow that's a great name.' So I'm used to it.

Do you have any nicknames?

Some people call me Hay. Some people call me Wood. Some people call me Haywood. My coach one time called me H squared cause I have two HH's, double H, H squared, I don't really like that one though.

So it sounds like fans need to come up with a new nickname?

Yes, definitely.

How do you like your cheesesteak?

I'm a big cheesesteak guy but I've tried to stop eating them because they're not healthy for a guy like me. But provolone cheese, no tomatoes, no ketchup, salt and pepper on a nice roll. 

What current player you looked up to and why?

Definitely a big Kevin Durant fan, just a humble person like I am, so one of my favorite players I've ever watched. He's from the D.C. area, which is not too far from me, where I'm from, so I look up to him. I like watching Paul George as well, who does a lot of everything. A two-way player, superstar type of player. Those two I definitely watched a lot of growing up, trying to play like them. 

What current Sixer has the capability to help out your development the most?

A lot of them. But Jimmy Butler, someone who has been in the league for awhile and been in big games, and just been a great player in the league, and another guy that came from a later pick (30th), and an All-Star type of player. His toughness, his grittiness, I can definitely learn a lot from him

What's something you've learned about Philly that you didn't know before?

They call this city the City of Brotherly Love, but you don't actually know that until you get in the city and see how it is, see the vibe of the city. The city of Philly is amazing. I've even gained like 3,000 followers since I've been here!

Do you have a favorite quote/saying?

Good things come to those who wait. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. 

Interests outside of basketball?

I definitely love food. My aunt makes tremendous salmon cake. I like seafood, being from Maryland. I'm a big animal guy too. I like tigers and lions. I used to watch Animal Planet back in the day, they had something called Big Cat Diary that I used to watch with my father, it was a show on big cats, lions, leopards, stuff like that. And I play Madden and 2K.

What advice would you give to other non-D-I athletes?

At the end of the day, if you are talented you are going to get your shot somewhere. Just because you don't go D-I, doesn't mean your opportunity with the NBA or G-League is over. I am living proof that if you have a goal, and you stick to a path, and you have support around you that you can get there. It might take time, but you just have to be patient. A lot of people don't understand that patience is a good trait to have as a person because a lot of people aren't patient, can't wait and just want to get there without putting all the hard work in. It takes a lot of hard work to get here, but once you get here, it feels amazing, and my message would be, keep grinding. You can get here from anywhere.

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Sixers could — and should — be dangerous down the stretch

Sixers could — and should — be dangerous down the stretch

During his time as the Sixers head coach, Brett Brown has always broken the season into thirds. The first two thirds have not gone as the team would’ve hoped. The Sixers sit at 34-21 and are currently the East’s fifth seed.

The good news is they look poised to go on a run in the final 27 games of the season.

Let’s start where everything starts with the Sixers: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. We can debate fit and clashing skill sets all we want. The bottom line is the Sixers need the All-Star duo to be peaking down the stretch and into the playoffs. 

Their win over the Clippers before the All-Star break represents exactly the type of performances needed. What was most impressive is that neither player sacrificed their aggressiveness to accommodate the other. Embiid took 17 shots — but also got 13 free throws — while Simmons took a season-high 22 attempts.

While he's played at an elite level the last 20 games, Simmons' last 11 may represent the best stretch of his career. The 23-year-old has averaged 12.5 field goal attempts in that span. When he takes at least 13 attempts from the field this season, the Sixers are 17-5. While the jumper may not be there, his improved shot is visible from the line where he’s hit 73.9 percent on 8.4 attempts during that stretch.

There’s no denying Embiid and Simmons’ importance, but having all of your top-five players is also pretty darn important. The Sixers have only had Embiid, Simmons, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford together for 21 of 55 games. That’s just 38.1 percent.

The Sixers are a respectable 9-7 when Embiid hasn’t played this season, but it’s clear they need all five of these players. 

While the Sixers are 9-5 in the games Richardson has missed, you could see the impact he had against the Clippers, pouring in 17 fourth-quarter points. You can’t expect that kind of output every night, but his ability as a two-way player is crucial to the Sixers.

Embiid should be splint free — he wasn't wearing one during the All-Star Game Sunday — for the first time since returning from the torn ligament in the ring finger on his left hand. Richardson looked explosive after missing time with multiple hamstring injuries. Simmons and Harris are two of the most durable players in the NBA.

As for Horford, it appears his run as a starter is over. That doesn’t mean he can’t make an impact. The decision could prove to be a “win-win” as Horford will fit better offensively with lineups that don’t feature Embiid. Brown will likely still use Horford to close games which makes sense. The Sixers’ original starting lineup is tied for second in the NBA in terms of defensive rating among five-man lineups that have played at least 200 minutes.

One of their newcomers would be a nice fit in place of Horford. Glenn Robinson III could make the team more switchable defensively. Robinson was used in a stopper role in Golden State. That likely won’t be the case here, but his ability to switch one through four makes him a dynamic piece defensively. Robinson is also having a career year shooting wise, hitting 39.5 percent of his threes. 

With Robinson and Alec Burks coming over from the Warriors, Brown suddenly has options. Bringing Horford off your bench as the sixth man while using Burks and Furkan Korkmaz as instant offense and Matisse Thybulle as an impactful defender makes the bench much more dangerous.

While there are plenty of reasons for optimism for the Sixers after the break, the reality is they’ve underperformed. A large part of that has to do with their abysmal 9-19 record on the road. The 18-36 Hornets have more road wins.

If you’re looking for a reason that could change, the Sixers’ strength of schedule could be one. Up to now, they’ve played the third-toughest schedule in the NBA. After the All-Star break, they have the second easiest. In contrast, the Raptors (sixth) and Celtics (seventh) have had lighter schedules that will get more difficult — Toronto has the 11th toughest, Boston the 12th.

That’s not an excuse. If the Sixers are the team they’ve claimed to be, they need to beat good teams. They also can’t follow up big wins with brutal losses like their lifeless defeat in Orlando two days after a Christmas day win over the Bucks.

The Sixers have work to do and ground to make up. All of these factors don’t matter if they don’t show consistent focus and stay healthy.

Brown refers to the stretch after the All-Star break as a “sprint.” The Sixers could — and probably should — be ready to go on a run.

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Ben Simmons puts on early show, Joel Embiid comes on late as Team LeBron beats Team Giannis in NBA All-Star Game

Ben Simmons puts on early show, Joel Embiid comes on late as Team LeBron beats Team Giannis in NBA All-Star Game

The Sixers were well represented by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at the 2020 NBA All-Star Game in Chicago Sunday.

Ultimately, Team LeBron won a thrilling — well, at least the fourth quarter was — game over Team Giannis, 157-155, on an Anthony Davis free throw. Kawhi Leonard won the newly named Kobe Bryant All-Star Game MVP Award scoring a game-high 30 points.

Embiid, playing without the splint on his left hand for the first time since having surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left ring finger, got Team Giannis on the board with an early dunk.

Then Simmons put on a show.

Simmons had 10 points, three rebounds and three assists in the first half.

The NBA decided to break away from its traditional game format, making each quarter its own mini-game. That means each period had its own tip-off.

And would you look at who was squaring off to start the second.

(Simmons won the tip, by the way)

Not to be outdone, Embiid had a couple fancy dunks of his own as Team Giannis built a lead in the third.

Simmons also had this beauty of a put-back dunk for good measure.

He took a spill at the end but appeared no worse for wear for the rest of the game.

Another wrinkle in the new format this year is that the fourth quarter wasn’t timed, and the teams played to a “target score.” In honor of Kobe Bryant, the “target score” was 157 — 24 more points than what Team Giannis, who was in the lead, had total heading into the fourth quarter.

With Team Giannis nearing that point total, Embiid made his presence felt down the stretch, including dropping this nasty Dream Shake on LeBron James.

Both Embiid (22 points, 10 rebounds) and Simmons (17 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals) showed why they were selected for the game.

They’ll return to the court for the Sixers Thursday against the Nets at the Wells Fargo Center.

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