After the Detroit Pistons drafted Isaiah Stewart 16th overall in 2020, general manager Troy Weaver explained why the team bucked pre-draft expectations by taking the big man in the middle of the first round.
“To me, the modern big is always about great feet,” Weaver said. “Isaiah has great feet. But more than anything, at any position, it’s the mindset, and he has a tremendous mindset, is a tremendous worker. I’m sure coach (Dwane) Casey and his staff will help Isaiah get acclimated to the pro game, but he has all the tools to be successful as a big in the NBA.”
Stewart’s footwork made him a consensus five-star recruit in high school. During his lone season in college, he anchored Washington’s zone on defense and bullied opponents down low on offense. He was productive, but NBA teams questioned how his game would translate.
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The Pistons had — and still have — a different vision what Stewart can become. The footwork that made him a skilled scorer in college has, at times, manifested differently in the NBA. Last Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors, Stewart’s first two shots were nimble drives to the rim. He finished a euro-step in transition past Andrew Wiggins for a layup and, on the next possession, faked a handoff to Killian Hayes at the top of the key before using a Cade Cunningham screen to dribble to the basket and finish a floating layup over several Warriors defenders.
Most NBA centers struggle to make plays with the ball. It hasn’t become a major part of Stewart’s game, but when the opportunity has presented itself, he has looked natural.
While Stewart has mostly functioned as a traditional screen-setter this season, the Pistons envision him playing a more perimeter-oriented game. In additional to his occasional dexterous drives to the rim, he has proven to be a capable defender on switches. He can comfortably guard smaller players, as he did against the Utah Jazz last Friday when he snuffed out a drive to the rim by Jordan Clarkson. He’s working on his outside shot, as well.
It won’t happen overnight, but Stewart has the tools to become a prototypical modern center — able to defend multiple positions, space the floor and attack closeouts. Stewart, who is slightly undersized at 6-foot-9, has often had to score over much larger players this season. The results have been mixed, but he has an alternate path toward becoming a reliable offensive threat.
“It’s something I’ve had in my game,” Stewart said. “I never really got to showcase it much, but being in the NBA, there’s chances I get to showcase it. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, whether it’s me going in transition, going to the rim or attacking a closeout, I have great faith in my ability to do so.”
Last season, Casey said that Stewart could move to power forward as his shot develops. The Pistons gave him the green light to shoot toward the end of last season, and ran plays to help him hoist more 3-pointers. He took 35 attempts during the final 10 games. His accuracy didn’t keep up with his volume, though, as he only hit nine (25.7%). But Stewart was a productive midrange shooter in college and has also been good from midrange in the NBA. The goal is for him to expand his range.
Stewart went 8-for-8 from the floor against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, including two midrange jumpers and one 3-pointer. Teams don’t respect Stewart’s shot, so he often has ample space to shoot. He doesn’t take many shots, but he has been solid from midrange. Per Cleaning The Glass, he’s 7-for-11 on long 2-pointers this season, after going 10-for-21 on long 2-pointers in 2020-21.
He’s often reluctant to shoot, but he still has the green light. While Stewart dedicated much of his offseason toward expanding his range, his comfort level is still highest in the post. With time, he anticipates the perimeter will become a bigger part of his game.
“It’s just reads and making sure it’s the right play,” Stewart said. “Not only that, but having confidence in doing so. I feel like that will be something that’ll start occurring more just because those are things I’m working on, I’m watching film seeing where I can pop back, see if I have a look at the 3 or second-side actions, putting it to the ground, stuff like that.”
The Pistons haven’t explicitly pushed Stewart to get more shots up, as they did last season. With two stretch centers on the roster in Kelly Olynyk and Luka Garza, the team needs a big man who can rebound, set screens and pressure the rim. Stewart has embraced those responsibilities while still sharpening his outside game during practices and workouts.
But even within the scheme, there are opportunities for him to shoot more than he does. He has made just three of 22 3-pointers this season, but the coaching staff is optimistic that will improve as his comfort does. Casey compared Stewart to one of his former players — Jonas Valanciunas, who averagin a career-high 2.4 3-pointers per game this season and hitting 41.7%.
“Hopefully he gets that part of the game,” Casey said of Stewart. “Right now he’s so used to being inside that the part of his career is expanding out. That was something I remember talking about with Valanciunas in Toronto, he’s never going to be a perimeter threat. Now he’s an excellent 3-point shooter. But it takes time to develop. When you’ve been in the dungeon, in the paint, for all of your career and now you’re moving out, it takes a little time. And Isaiah will eventually do it. Last year, he shot the 3 much better than he’s shooting it this year, but eventually he’ll get consistent with it and learn to play a little bit more off the dribble on the perimeter.”
Stewart loves playing with physicality. He embraces the dirty work. He’s the most proficient rebounder, screener and rim protector on the roster. But he’s embracing finesse elements as well, knowing that to become an effective modern center, he’ll have to knock down more outside shots, defend smaller players and punish bigger players by attacking closeouts.
But as Detroit’s roster continues to change and he continues to work out the kinks in his shooting form, we could see his shot profile evolve in future seasons.
“It’s definitely an advantage and it’s a skillset of being strong, being a bruiser, being able to play down there with big, physical centers but also being mobile,” Stewart said. “Being able to fly up and down the court, being able to switch out and guard guards and being able to put the ball on the ground and get to the rim — I feel like it’s a skill set that is great to have.”