Detroit Pistons’ Isaiah Stewart was pressed into starting role, and he keeps on impressing

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
| Detroit Free Press

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Isaiah Stewart’s best play against the Indiana Pacers on Thursday was one that highlighted why the rookie has risen from the end of the bench to the starting lineup in just 25 games. 

Midway through the second quarter, the Detroit Pistons‘ center blocked a layup attempt by Domantas Sabonis, outran the entire Pacers defense in transition and stretched his arm out to call for the ball. Josh Jackson tossed an outlet pass and hit him in stride, leading to a breakaway dunk and energetic scream by Stewart.  

Stewart’s game is all about effort. He consistently outworks his opponents for rebounds, often jumping two or three times before opposing centers complete one jump. He runs the floor hard in transition and when getting back on defense every single time. His post game is blossoming, and he has shown flashes of being able to hit 3-pointers, too. 

Mason Plumlee was a surprise late scratch for Thursday’s 111-95 loss to the Pacers with bursitis in his left elbow. Stewart, already the backup center for about a month, received his first career start. 

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It was a tough matchup against the Pacers’ Sabonis-Myles Turner frontcourt, but Stewart delivered one of his best performances of the season. He finished with a career-high 17 points on 8-for-9 overall shooting, seven rebounds, two steals and a block in a career-high 31 minutes. 

“To me, I was just locked in,” Stewart said of his emotions after learning he’d start the game. “Just making sure I know my matchup, just watching a bunch of film, trying to make sure I understand everything because I know I need to know who’s out there on the floor in order to execute.”

With Jahlil Okafor set to miss six to eight weeks after undergoing knee surgery earlier this week, there’s a path for Stewart to start more in the near future. The Pistons aren’t sure when Plumlee, in the midst of perhaps his best stretch of basketball this season before his injury, will return. Dwane Casey said after the game that Plumlee could be day-to-day, and they’re waiting for his infection to subside. 

In his previous eight games, Plumlee was averaging 13.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and a block. The Pistons missed his size and versatility against the Pacers. He’s an initiator in Detroit’s offense, and the Pistons simply lacked size with one healthy center on the roster. 

Sabonis and Turner combined for 40 points on 15-for-23 shooting, and Detroit wasn’t able to put up much resistance against their size and Indiana’s physicality. 

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“You miss the rolling, you miss the screening, you miss his length and size against Sabonis,” Casey said. “I thought Isaiah scrapped as much as he could, but he’s a young kid and Sabonis is a veteran scorer inside, so you miss that aspect of it. He brings a lot to the game, he brings the DHO’s, he brings the rolling, putting pressure on the paint. You miss all of that. Isaiah, he tried and he does, he’s getting there but he’s not quite where Mason is as far as doing that part of the game, but again, next guy’s gotta step up.” 

Both Blake Griffin and Sekou Doumbouya spent time at center. Neither have spent much time at the five this season, and Casey said after the game that he didn’t expect to have to play Doumbouya at center at all this season. But Doumbouya did play some small-ball center in the in-market bubble during the offseason, and he was able to grab six rebounds in 16 minutes on Thursday. 

“He has the size,” Casey said. “I thought he did a decent job of rebounding. I watched the film. I thought he had a couple of physical rebounds in there that he went in there and got. Until we get Mason back, or whenever he comes back, we have to continue to look at him in there.” 

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Until Plumlee returns, the starting center job appears to be Stewart’s. And even though he didn’t quite replicate what Plumlee offers, the rookie was impactful in his own way. 

“I know he’s a fearless guy, very tough, very strong,” Josh Jackson said of Stewart. “I know he’s excited to get the start today, so I knew he would take advantage of every moment and that’s exactly what he went out there and did. He went out there and battled and competed and I was really happy with his performance.” 

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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