How Pistons got ‘inside scoop’ on Isaiah Stewart, a perfect fit for Troy Weaver’s rebuild

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
| Detroit Free Press

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The Detroit Pistons only made one road trip during their preseason schedule — to Washington for back-to-back games against the Wizards. The NBA’s COVID-19 protocols disincentivize players from going out, so players will spend a significant amount of time in their hotel rooms while on the road this season. 

Isaiah Stewart, the Pistons’ 19-year-old rookie big man, took advantage of his free time by watching documentaries on the two most prominent Pistons eras: The Bad Boys of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the ‘Goin’ To Work’ team of the early-to-mid 2000s. Stewart was only a toddler when the Pistons beat the Lakers in the 2004 Finals, but the way they played resonated with him. 

“That ’03-04 team, I watched it and I just loved the toughness,” Stewart said recently. “I loved how they were together. They didn’t care about who had what shots. They just were a team. You could see they were a family and they all had each other’s backs. I loved watching that.” 

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Since Troy Weaver was hired as general manager in June, he has frequently referenced those Pistons teams as a source of inspiration for what he wants to build. Both teams were defined, in part, by the play of their big men. Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and others were tone-setters on defense, and played with the passion and energy that attracts fans. 

A big part of Weaver’s rebuilding strategy is to identify players who fit that mold. It was a priority going into the draft, and the Pistons swung multiple trades to come out of the draft with four rookies. Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Saben Lee and Stewart were identified as players who embody those qualities, and were highly ranked on Detroit’s draft board. 

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But Stewart is the lone big man on that list, and is also the highest drafted of the players the Pistons traded for. It was a surprise for some draft analysts when he was selected with the 16th pick — not because he lacks talent, but because he gained a reputation during his lone season at Washington as a “throwback” center. 

He averaged 17 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game last season in 32 games. He possesses a bruising, diverse post game that has become more rare in today’s NBA game, which puts greater emphasis on spacing the floor. Stewart didn’t take many 3-pointers, and he’s a little undersized for the center position at 6 feet 9, though a 7-4 wingspan helps him.

But his game allowed him to be considered one of the best centers in the draft. His appeal to Weaver and the Pistons goes deeper than his averages. Stewart’s personality and work ethic, in addition to his game, endeared him to the Pistons’ front office. Weaver sees Stewart as a player who could become comparable to the big men who defined those championship Pistons teams. 

Washington head coach Mike Hopkins is one of the few people, if not the only person, who had close relationships with both Weaver and Stewart before they became Pistons.Stewart’s toughness endeared him to Hopkins and Washington last season, and now, the Pistons.

Stewart’s fit with Weaver and the Pistons is perfect, Hopkins said. 

“Detroit’s a tough city, takes pride in its toughness,” he said Tuesday. “And Isaiah’s got that. He’s got motor. He’s got physicality. He’s got that mindset with his ability to shoot. That’s why I think he’s a perfect fit.” 

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An ‘inside scoop’

Hopkins and Weaver were assistant coaches at Syracuse together from 2000-04. Weaver joined the Utah Jazz as a lead scout afterward, a path that eventually led to him becoming an NBA GM. Hopkins remained an assistant there until 2017, when he was hired as Washington’s head coach. 

Like everyone who knows Weaver, Hopkins raves about his eye for talent. Weaver was responsible for recruiting Carmelo Anthony to Syracuse, and identified Russell Westbrook and Stephen Adams, among others, as worthy cornerstones for the Oklahoma City Thunder. During his time with the DC Assault AAU team, Weaver was known to walk in a gym and identify within minutes who the most talented players were. Hopkins saw that ability firsthand.

“Some people have gifts,” Hopkins said. “He was a coach, grew up with the DC Assault in one of the greatest talent areas in the country, if not the best. Watching players for so many years, just growing up in the business, in the game, you start to figure out what really works and what doesn’t, who usually makes it and who doesn’t. That’s also an art. He’s as good of an artist as there is.” 

Weaver said his friendship with Hopkins gave him an “inside scoop” on Stewart — a consensus five-star center in 2019 who picked Washington over Duke and Kentucky, as well as Syracuse and Michigan State. Hopkins began recruiting Stewart while he was at Syracuse. When Stewart committed to Washington, he credited his relationship with Hopkins as the deciding factor. 

Even when Stewart was in ninth grade, something separated him from the pack.  

“It was work and intensity and motor, nonstop,” Hopkins said. “He’s got an incredible competitive nature. From the AAU games, I put this out in a tweet before the draft, any matchup that he ever had, I never saw him get outplayed against the best players. Whoever he played against. He might not have won the game, but he didn’t get outplayed. He brought it to a different level.” 

Hopkins also recalled how he was as a person. Stewart once attended a football game at his high school, and the students in the crowd began chanting his name. He held the door open for his family members. During games, he did the little things that impact winning. 

“He’s just real,” Hopkins said. “He’s authentic, he’s caring. I always try to figure out, how can a guy like that just be such a wrecking machine on the court? He’s just this guy who’s so competitive and plays so hard. He just competes. And then off the court, so caring and empathetic and personal and loving. All the things that just make you fall in love with a kid. He’s just that type of person. Loyalty, great character, always positive.”

Weaver attended several Washington games last season to scout Stewart. Through Hopkins, Weaver was able to get a good sense of what Stewart could do in non-game action. Hopkins considers Stewart to be a good 3-point shooter, and Weaver sees his upside there. Stewart only took 20 3-pointers last season, and made five. But he made 77.4% of his free throws (154-for-199), and flashed an ability to consistently hit midrange jumpers. 

Stewart anchored Washington’s zone defense last season, but he’ll play significantly more man-to-man defense in the NBA. He’ll be asked to step out to the perimeter more often. Weaver and Hopkins have both praised Stewart’s mobility, and think he can handle the challenge. Add his mobility and shooting to his strengths that were more prominent in college, and you have a center suited for the modern game. 

Already, Stewart has made a good first impression with the Pistons. In their preseason opener, he grabbed four rebounds in seven minutes. He showed off his athleticism and got off the floor quicker than everyone. His attitude has impressed the veterans, as well. Even though the Pistons have two experienced centers on the roster in Mason Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor, coach Dwane Casey said he will find time for Stewart.

“He probably has the best attitude of any young player I’ve been around,” Plumlee said recently. “He wants to be good, he wants to learn, he wants to listen. I think he’s gonna have a very long career in the NBA and I think he’s going to help us this year, too. I’m excited for Isaiah.” 

Weaver loves big men. It has become something of an NBA Twitter meme, but it’s lonn beena core part of his strategy. Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams were home-run picks for the Thunder and a core part of their playoff success. The Pistons signed-and-traded Christian Wood, along with a heavily protected future first-round pick in exchange for Stewart’s draft rights at No. 16, Trevor Ariza and a 2027 second-round pick.

There’s confidence that Stewart, like Ibaka and Adams did for OKC, will help the Pistons reach contender status once again. And Hopkins will be rooting for them from afar. 

“I love being around people that won’t be denied,” Hopkins said. “Both of those guys have that mentality, they won’t be denied. I think it’s so cool that they’re together.” 

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa

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