Isaiah Stewart is back.
Technically, he never left. But the Detroit Pistons‘ second-year big man missed two months of his first real NBA offseason this summer after tweaking his ankle during workouts with the USA Select Team in July. The injury left him in a walking boot, cost him summer league and prevented him from participating in five-on-five action until shortly before training camp opened toward the end of September.
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Stewart had to shake off some rust during preseason, but the Pistons’ final exhibition game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday featured the Beef Stew of last season. He had 17 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks to help the Pistons close out their slate with a 112-108 victory.
It’s noticeable when Stewart isn’t playing his usual brand of high-energy basketball. His All-Rookie second team season was characterized by his nonstop, bouncy activity. He does everything with purpose and utilizes quick, short hops to rebound and score over opposing big men who are often bigger than him.
He had a tough matchup in former Piston Andre Drummond, who started in place of Joel Embiid and had a solid statistical night in his own right. But Stewart ultimately won the night.
“Just timing,” Stewart said on Monday of what he regained during preseason. “And not only that. Just having the will to do that on defense, going up against those guys, bigger guys down low. And also, everybody knows last year who I am. Energetic, a second off the ground, quick to do all of those kinds of things. I thought I showed that the last preseason game, and just to build that from the other preseason games.”
Stewart has positioned himself to seize a much bigger role entering his second season. He started all four preseason games, and it would be surprising to see him come off of the bench for Wednesday’s regular season opener against the Chicago Bulls. Stewart started 14 games as a rookie, most of those at the end of the season.
The Pistons don’t have a player who can replicate what Stewart brings; he’s their best rebounder and shot-blocker. He is also a versatile defender and is developing as a floor-spacer. He showed that he has the footspeed to stay in front of smaller perimeter players during switches — a valuable skill for a big man in today’s NBA.
He will play a lot, as long as he keeps his fouls down. Stewart occasionally struggled with foul trouble last season, and had a penchant for playing with too much physicality. It’s something the coaching staff has, and will continue to, keep in his mind.
The big swing factor for Stewart next season could be his shooting. Stewart was not a volume 3-point shooter in his one year in college at Washington, but expanding his range has become a focus for him. He was taking multiple 3-point attempts per game by the end of the season. Stewart made 33% of them, just enough to encourage defenders to close out.
Stewart only attempted four 3-pointers during preseason, and made just one. But he said he’s more comfortable taking them now, and the coaching staff has given him the green light to let them fly. There were times where he hesitated to shoot, but with time, Dwane Casey believes he’ll lose the hesitation.
If Stewart can consistently knock down 3s, it’ll make it even tougher for Casey to bench him. The Pistons prioritized improving their shooting this offseason, and signed Kelly Olynyk to help in that area. Trey Lyles can also shoot, and could slide over from power forward to center at times if Stewart and/or Olynyk are in foul trouble.
The Pistons are not rushing Stewart’s process as a shooter, but his improvement in that area carries plenty of intrigue.
“A second-year player, you feel like he’s an old head but the young man’s only been in the league two years, so he’s still trying to figure that out,” Casey said on Monday. “And he will. It’s one of those things where it’s gotta be natural, and that’s what you’re seeing. You’re seeing that hesitation, even though he works on that shot every day.
“It’s a difference when the light comes on. It’ll get there. He’ll come. He’ll be out there shooting like Kelly in time. I don’t know if it’s this year, end of this year, first part of next year. But it will come.”
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