Coming out of high school, Isaiah Stewart was the third-best prospect in the country, according to 247 composite rankings. One year later, after he was drafted by the Detroit Pistons with the 16th overall pick in 2020, he was said to lack offensive versatility and was called one of the biggest reaches in the first round. A little more than two years later, Beef Stew’s stock is back on the rise.
After showing some glimpses of three-point shooting ability in his first two seasons, there was a thought that Stewart might eventually see some minutes at power forward. That thought was reinforced when the Detroit traded up to take Jalen Duren during this summer’s draft.
It was natural to be skeptical of the impending two big man experiment. The rest of the league has been moving in the opposite direction for years. Though Stewart has shown nice touch early in his career, he hardly has the skills ideally suited for a modern power forward.
But the Pistons had their vision. They had a plan. Stewart started alongside Marvin Bagley III early in the year. Those lineups were, well, disastrous. In 127 minutes, lineups with Bagley and Stewart produced an awful -20.4 net rating.
Enter Jalen Duren.
Dwane Casey inserted Duren into the starting lineup and the early returns have been excellent. Lineups with Duren and Stewart have produced a +2.2 net rating in 140 minutes, and have been good on both ends of the floor.
The Stewart-Duren combination obviously helps a lot of the defensive issues that have plagued the Pistons so far this season. In the limited sample with those two bigs on the floor, opponents are producing a woeful 50.4 effective field goal percentage and grabbing only 21% of offensive rebounds (league-worst numbers this year are 49.9 and 23.1, respectively).
So the new starting front court has been wildly successful defensively. But that was maybe to be expected. Perhaps more impressive is that those lineups have scored 111.5 points per 100 possessions by virtue of an excellent 53.9 true-shooting percentage.
Now, 140 minutes is obviously not a big sample size. But, based on what we have seen from Stewart lately, there is plenty of reason to believe that the offensive success is sustainable to some degree.
Stewart’s career-high 38.6% shooting from deep is the number that immediately jumps off the page when looking at his offensive improvement. How that efficiency is playing out, however, is the real key.
In previous seasons, almost all of Stewart’s three-pointers came from above the break. In 2022-23, 24% of his threes have come from the corner, and he’s making them at an incredible 46.2% rate. But even more important than where the deep balls are being attempted is the confidence with which Beef Stew is taking them.
In the past, when Stewart was left completely alone he could take his time to line up threes. Low-volume success was no huge surprise. Now he’s attempting shots from the long line this year more quickly and in-rhythm, and they are going in consistently. Watch as he gets into this corner three against the Charlotte Hornets with a hop action and shoots despite an aggressive closeout:
Against the New York Knicks, he grabbed a high-ish pass from Hamidou Diallo and let a corner three fly with very little dip in his shooting motion:
This make against the Knicks may not seem like much, but you just don’t see many bigs pull off that quick, minimal dip type shot. That type of shot is reserved more for serious three-point threats. And seeing Stewart with that type of confidence in his shooting is quite encouraging.
But it’s more than just how confidently Stewart is shooting the deep ball. He is finding his spots by reading the defense and understanding what he needs to do to maximize the team’s spacing.
When the New Orleans Pelicans made an effort to deny Stewart’s screen for Killian Hayes, Stewart backed off, made himself available, and knocked down a three before Jonas Valanciunas could recover:
Against the Memphis Grizzlies, Stewart went to set a pin-down screen for Saddiq Bey but Memphis was playing too far off for the play to work. So, recognizing that the spacing was off with both he and Bey in the corner, Stewart sprinted to the left wing once the pick-and-roll was run, and made another in-rhythm three:
Then against the Miami Heat, Stewart recognized that Killian Hayes began his drive to the left and realized he would be in the way. So, he simply drifted to the corner and again made himself available for a wide-open deep ball:
Against the Hornets, he went so far as to call for the ball in the corner when he noticed that the defense collapsed and he was the best shooting option:
And, encouragingly, the court vision is not just limited to finding open looks from the long line. Though he is taking less attempts inside three feet, Stewart has improved his efficiency on those shots compared to last year.
The Pistons have leveraged in some new ways this year such as having him slip screens early to take advantage of his tendency to pick and pop, as he does here in Spain pick-and-roll type action:
Then there are occasions where Stewart simply recognizes opportunities based on how the defense is playing. His understanding of how and when to roll wasn’t great as a rookie, but it’s gone to a new level this season. Watch how he recognizes that the Dallas Mavericks have both Luka Doncic and Dwight Powell in a high drop position and splits them with a roll and finish:
This split screen action is likely designed for Bagley to roll and Stewart to pop, but the Mavericks’ coverage was going to limit the effectiveness of that so Stewart simply chose to take what Dallas was giving him.
So we see Stewart seeing the floor better and shooting more quickly to help the Pistons’ offense flow better. But the improvements don’t end there. More recently, Detroit’s new power forward has begun to attack closeouts successfully.
Against Dallas, Tim Hardaway, Jr. guarded Stewart tightly along the perimeter because of the respect for the newfound long game. And Stewart made him pay with a quick move and finger roll in the paint:
Then, against the Hornets, we saw a whole new level of attacking a closeout from Stewart. When he slipped a screen and popped to the perimeter, Charlotte guarded him closely even though he was way behind the long line. And Stewart punished them with a left-handed drive and a poster:
If he can be a consistent threat attacking closeouts, Stewart becomes a perfectly acceptable offensive option at the four. Because of how he quickly he is attempting and making threes, defenses have no option but exerting more effort to contest his shots.
If he can leverage that by attacking closeouts and slipping screens to make himself available for passes around the rim, his versatility adds a whole different dimension to Detroit’s offense. And considering his reputation as a hard worker and how much he has improved already this season, it’s probably best not to bet against Isaiah Stewart.