It’s hard enough for a rookie to make a name in the NBA.
Playing time can be scarce, mistakes are going to happen and there’s often a pecking order to the roster, with veterans taking most of the minutes. That wasn’t a problem for the Pistons’ rookies, who got plenty of work this season, mostly in anonymity because of the Pistons’ 20-52 record.
Rookie big man Isaiah Stewart already had created his calling card with hustle, rebounding, defense and a scrappy demeanor early in the season. Still, it came as a surprise to Stewart when they played the Los Angeles Lakers that LeBron James already knew about him too.
“He knows the game so well that as I’m checking into the game, he’s listing everything I do to his teammates out loud: ‘Rook coming in. He runs hard, runs the floor, high energy, strong. Watch out for this; watch out for that,’” Stewart told reporters in Rochester, New York, including Dan Fetes of 13WHAM. “He’s listing out what I do as I’m checking into the game. That was pretty crazy.”
Through the first half of the season, Stewart made his name on what coach Dwane Casey calls “his day job” of rebounding, providing energy and sturdy defense at the rim. Just after the midway point, Stewart started attempting — and making — 3-pointers more frequently. That added part of his game is what provides promise going into the offseason.
All the rookies will have summer work to do, but Stewart’s will be honing all of his strengths, along with adjusting to playing more power forward, with the versatility to play alongside Mason Plumlee in bigger lineups, or as the center himself in smaller lineups.
It’s a multi-step process, but Stewart made the first step forward with a solid season: 7.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 33% on 3-pointers in 68 games. He led all rookies in rebounds per game, total offensive rebounds and blocks.
Stewart has had a year worthy of a selection on one of the All-Rookie teams, because the numbers themselves don’t tell the full story.
“All those little things from the rookies and making the advance and steps that they made in the rookie year would be the highlight for me as a coach,” Casey said. “It’s hard for young players to win in this league because of the savvy and the experience the players have on other teams. I think that’s why we didn’t win as many games, but the plus is that it will pay great dividends down the road.”
The Pistons are hoping their “Core Four” of Stewart, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee can be the backbone of their resurgence, which makes this summer important in both how the rookies progress in their development and what happens with the Pistons’ draft pick. With some luck in the lottery, the Pistons could land a top-four pick and a solid player who can add to the young core.
Count Casey among those who had to learn about Stewart’s game. Casey said he liked what he saw on film when the Pistons drafted Stewart 16th overall last year, but the way his game has evolved this season has been one of the biggest surprises.
“I didn’t know how much Isaiah’s game would translate to the NBA,” Casey said. “I knew his hard play would translate but I didn’t know if the 3-point shooting or offensive rebounding or if he’d be able to do that against bigger and stronger bodies and he did so, their next step, are the nuances of the game.”
Before it became a regular occurrence in games, Stewart was working on his 3-point shot in practice. Just like Casey did with Andre Drummond previously, he encouraged Stewart to take the open 3-pointers if defenders were leaving them open. It was a slow trickle at first, but then it started happening more and more.
It reached a crescendo near the end of the season when Stewart went 3-of-7 from beyond the arc against the Chicago Bulls.
“It’s different because before this, I’ve never taken so many threes in games,” Stewart said. “It’s a different feeling and something I’m still getting used to, but it’s something I work hard at every day. I’m putting up shots and working my follow-through and mechanics and making sure it’s the same every time.
“When I’m putting up these threes, I just try to shoot every one the same. The coaching staff has belief in me and belief in that shot. They see it go in every day in practice and that’s why they have that confidence in me, so I shoot them in games.”
Like Big Ben?
That 3-point shooting is one of the few things that separates Stewart from Pistons icon Ben Wallace. They have many similarities in their styles, their build and how they approach the game. Casey says that Stewart can be like Wallace with his work ethic and size and hopes that the two can work together at some point.
The outlook for Stewart is more than that, though. They hope he can play some power forward and help with the depth to give them additional versatility with their big men. Stewart has shown it with his 3-point shooting, but the bigger test will come in defending opposing bigs who are small and quick.
His perimeter shooting has come on quicker than most thought, and his development can move to other areas of his game.
Some of the work this summer will focus on becoming a better on-ball defender. One of Stewart’s weaknesses in his rookie season was that he got into foul trouble early in games, which made things difficult when the bench was short. Sometimes, they had to use Tyler Cook as a small-ball center.
Stewart has said he keeps a notebook with observations or things he remembers about each game, which he’ll refer back to. That’ll be a help in his summertime homework and getting ready for next season.
He could be a different player by then.
And James and the rest of the league will have to get to know Stewart all over again.