Isaiah Stewart’s growth as shooter will dictate his upside with Detroit Pistons

Detroit Free Press

This past season was filled with “firsts” for Isaiah Stewart.

He started his transition from center to power forward — abandoning the paint to shoot multiple 3-pointers every night, chasing smaller players on defense, and learning how to coexist alongside another big man.

The end results were mixed, but the Detroit Pistons are encouraged by what they saw. Stewart could become one of the NBA’s more valuable bigs if he masters his responsibilities at both the four and five. Other players who can comfortably shift between both positions, such as Boston Celtics big man Grant Williams and Golden State Warriors (and Michigan State alumnus) Draymond Green, have proven themselves as irreplaceable playoff performers.

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As Stewart approaches extension eligibility later this summer, he understands that his continued growth as a perimeter player is key to his future. It’ll inform his offseason workouts. But the Pistons already view Stewart as a franchise cornerstone. He’s a tone-setter on defense and energizes the team with his spirit.

The only question is if the Pistons extend him this year, or if Stewart will bet on himself and let the market set his price in restricted free agency in 2024.

“I feel like I don’t have a ceiling,” Stewart said during his end-of-season news conference. “It’s a lot of room for growth. I know when first I got drafted, people viewed me as a different player. I put the work in to work on my skills to continue to develop my game. I don’t know what the final version looks like because I’m going to continue to put in the work and continue to build my game as much as possible.”

In his third season, Stewart averaged a career-high 11.3 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting 44.2% overall and 32.7% from 3. His rebounds and field goal percentage declined from the previous season, but that’s more of an indication of his evolving role.

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After attempting 109 3-pointers during his first two seasons combined, Stewart hoisted 205 attempts in just 50 games — an average of 4.1 per. Since he was drafted in 2020, he worked on his outside shot behind-the-scenes. The Pistons envisioned him eventually filling a floor-spacing role, rather than having him battle against bigger players in the paint.

Despite his imposing frame, Stewart is a below-average finisher for a big man. The center position is dominated by above-the-rim athletes and post technicians. Stewart, at 6 feet 8 and 250 pounds, is neither, undersized for the center position and lacking the touch and athleticism to truly flourish in the paint.

Though his 32.7% clip from 3 can improve, he showed upside as a shooter this past season. He was one of Detroit’s best outside threats during his first 29 games, knocking down 38.1% of his attempts. During his final 21 games, he slumped to 25.3%. A left shoulder impingement prematurely ended his season on Feb. 25.

Stewart estimated that his shoulder started bothering him in January. His slump began on Dec. 28, when he made just two of his eight 3-point attempts during a home game against the Orlando Magic.

“It’s feeling much better,” He said. “I feel like I’m in a good spot with it right now, especially heading into the offseason. During the season it definitely affected me. I was trying to play through it hoping it resolves. Best thing to do is follow the training staff, listen to what they gotta say and that’s what I did.”

The extent that Stewart’s shoulder affected his shooting is tough to quantify, but he acknowledged that he was playing through pain before the Pistons shut him down.

“I’m not the type to try to make excuses and stuff,” he said. “It probably did. Those games, it was bothering me. At the end of the day, one thing I’ve learned about shooting is you’re going to go through cold stretches, and it always comes back around.”

Stewart’s continued development as a shooter will be key to his ability to play with Detroit’s other bigs, as many coaches are uncomfortable playing two non-shooters together in the frontcourt. It’s especially important considering the Pistons traded for center James Wiseman at the deadline this year and have already extended big man Marvin Bagley.

The other parts of Stewart’s game — defense and rebounding — are more proven and factor into the front office’s high evaluation of him. He’s arguably Detroit’s best and most versatile defender, capable of handling himself in the paint and switching onto smaller guards and forwards.

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Plus-minus stats aren’t a perfect way to measure impact, but it’s notable that opposing teams scored 1.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when Stewart was on the floor — in the 63rd percentile among bigs, per Cleaning The Glass. He was Detroit’s only big man with a positive defensive impact. He’s also an above-average defensive rebounder, and was one of the NBA’s better offensive rebounders before moving away from the rim this past season.

Stewart is also one of Detroit’s locker room leaders, and grew in that area with Cade Cunningham missing most of the season. He embodies the hard hat approach that successful Pistons teams in the past have personified. It hasn’t translated to winning so far, but the front office seems confident that if the Pistons get to that point, Stewart will be a big reason why.

“We missed him as much as anyone,” Troy Weaver said. “Coach (Dwane Casey) will tell you his competitive spirit really is the heartbeat of the team. And him being out, you can watch the game and we competed a lot of nights, but just his competitive spirit drives the group. He’s definitely developing. Coach talks about growing his game in increments, and he’s done that.

“We expect him to continue to do that. Isaiah can play with any of those bigs, he can play small ball five, he can play the four. He’s a guy that you want on your team. He’s a foxhole guy. But his competitive spirit is really what drives us, he and Cade. Having him out, that was as big of a loss as Cade being out with his competitive spirit.”

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

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