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Highsmith’s NBA journey reaches free agency this summer. He wants to stay with Heat, but will he?

Miami Heat forward Haywood Highsmith has come a long way literally and figuratively after going undrafted out of Wheeling University six years ago and playing in the German basketball league four years ago.

This summer, Highsmith will become an unrestricted free agent and is in line for the biggest payday of his NBA career.

“It has been a long journey to get here,” Highsmith, 27, said earlier this month after the Heat’s season came to an end in the first round of the playoffs.

After playing in 100 G League games and spending the 2020-21 season in the German Basketball Bundesliga, Highsmith has become one of the Heat’s latest undrafted success stories. Before initially joining the Heat in the middle of the 2021-22 season on a 10-day contract, Highsmith had played in just five regular-season NBA games.

This regular season in the final year of his contract, Highsmith averaged career-highs in points (6.1 per game), assists (1.1), steals (0.8), blocks (0.5) and minutes (20.7) while shooting career-bests from the field (46.5 percent) and three-point range (39.6 percent) for the Heat. He also appeared in a career-high 66 games and made a career-high 26 starts this regular season.

Highsmith also established himself as one of the Heat’s top defenders this season, as the coaching staff trusted him to defend elite scorers like DeMar DeRozan, Tyrese Maxey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Trae Young for extended stretches. At 6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan, Highsmith has the versatility and length to effectively guard most positions on the court.

In addition, Highsmith received extended playing time in the playoffs this season. With the Heat’s injury issues lifting Highsmith into an even bigger role this postseason, he played 25.1 minutes per game during Miami’s short five-game playoff run.

“If you know anything about my story, I went to a smaller school, burst onto the scene with the NBA G League team with the 76ers, played overseas, came back and found my way to this organization,” Highsmith said, referring to the Heat. “They gave me an opportunity. I’ve been here for about three years.

“So just very grateful for this organization for bringing me in and just putting me through that developmental system. It shows that they really helped me as far as my game, getting better, putting me in the right situations and understanding how I’m going to be a player in this league to come.”

This offseason, Highsmith wants to continue to add new layers to his offensive game. While Highsmith’s main function within the Heat’s offense is to help space the floor with his three-point shot, he wants to develop counters to different defensive coverages he saw this season.

With more than half of Highsmith’s field-goal attempts this regular season coming from behind the arc, he said he’ll spend the offseason working on “attacking closeouts, more ball-handling, trying to be a playmaker.”

“Maybe coming off screens as a ball-handler, making plays,” Highsmith added. “If they go under the screen, stop behind and shoot the three. If they go over, attack and maybe get downhill for a lob to the big or a kick-out spray. Just becoming more comfortable on the offensive end of the floor with handling the ball and playing off the catch, catch and gos and just being more aggressive.”

Highsmith will also spend this offseason figuring out his NBA future. Highsmith’s preference is to re-sign with the Heat in free agency this summer, but Miami isn’t in a position to match big outside offers because of its salary-cap situation.

Bobby Marks, an ESPN front office insider and former Nets executive, told the Miami Herald that he projects Highsmith’s annual salary in his next contract to be “in the $8 to 10 million range.” Matching that type of offer would push the Heat’s payroll above the ultra-punitive second apron for next season based on its current salary-cap sheet.

“When that time comes to figure out where I’ll be playing next season, I’ll go through it slowly and just pray about it,” Highsmith said of his impending free agency. “I definitely want to stay in Miami. I love being here. My family lives here, my daughter lives here. So that’s a big priority for me, just to be around my daughter a lot. But I just got to figure it out and just take my time and understand it’s going to work itself out and everything happens for a reason.”

The Heat is allowed to begin negotiating with Highsmith on the day after the last game of the NBA Finals, which could be as early as June 15 or as late as June 24, since he was on the team’s season-ending roster. Free-agent negotiations around the league begin on June 30.

One thing is for sure, Highsmith is on track for a sizable raise after playing on a $1.9 million salary this season. He hopes that raise comes from the Heat.

“I definitely would say it just feels like family here,” Highsmith said of the Heat organization. “It’s all about winning, figuring out ways to win a championship, figuring out ways to compete for a championship. They’re not about tanking or load management, none of that stuff. They’re all about winning and I respect that as a competitor myself.

“Also, sometimes it’s tough love here. They’re going to tell you how it is, they’re not going to sugarcoat it. For somebody like me, I need somebody that’s not going to baby me or tell me what I want to hear. Tell me the right thing that I need to hear and tell me if I’m not playing hard enough, tell me if I’m not doing this and just look me in my eyes man to man. I love it here. It matches me, who I am and how I got here.”