‘He does it every possession’ – At 19, Isaiah Stewart is turning heads as a Pistons rookie

Isaiah Stewart
Isaiah Stewart’s rookie season has given the Pistons plenty of reasons for optimism about his future and theirs
Chris Schwegler (NBAE via Getty Images)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

After an 18-point, 16-rebound, three-block, three-steals game by Isaiah Stewart, Dwane Casey said what he’s been saying about him for three months now: “He’s just scratching the surface of what he’s going to be in this league.”

Which begs the question: What type of production is Isaiah Stewart going to turn in once the surface has been sufficiently penetrated?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s easy to dream on Stewart maintaining his 43 percent 3-point shooting once he starts taking three or four a game, on what happens once he’s more comfortable putting the ball on the deck from the elbows and using his strength and quickness to barge to the rim or find cutters, on the impact he’ll have defensively once he’s done a few more laps around the league and had a real off-season to sharpen his raw tools for the role he sees for his future.

What he can become is one thing, but what he is right now is pretty amazing … unless you’re Isaiah Stewart. Anything about his success that surprises the 19-year-old?

“No, because I put the work in,” he said Tuesday, coming off a three-game run averaging 17.3 points and 16.3 rebounds. “I do the extra things, take the time to watch film, watch every game and make notes and see where I can always grow. I put in the work after practice or the off day, working on my game.”

Remember all the knitted brows when the Pistons used the 16th pick on … a center? Except it turns out Troy Weaver didn’t draft a center so much as he drafted Isaiah Stewart, and calling him a center is sort of like calling Michelangelo a painter. It’s not wrong, necessarily, but it doesn’t begin to tell the story.

It didn’t take long for others to see some of what Weaver liked about Stewart once the season began in December, but the first-year Pistons general manager saw more than raw energy and toughness when he looked at the teenager who spent a year at Washington playing in a zone defense.

“He’s one guy I remember Troy talking about when he first got here, about how important this kid was,” Casey said. “He was as high on this young man as anybody and he’s been spot on with him.”

Weaver envisioned a player who would fit the NBA of 2020 and beyond – a defender with nimble feet who could both protect the rim and switch on to and smother guards turning the corner off screens and a threat with the ball from places beyond the paint, eventually out to the 3-point line.

Casey sees all those things, too. But what he saw first was a player that other players disliked – downright hated – playing against. And even in the age of analytics, it’s hard to put a number on the value of that.

“It’s huge. Even in practice today, the old veterans don’t like to use that much energy. It’s not like Isaiah does it one time. He does it every possession, whether it’s in practice or games.”

Stewart’s physical nature – seeking out contact to create space, boxing out firmly, bumping cutters coming across his front porch – eventually takes a toll. There’s a point in most games – sometimes shortly after tipoff – when Stewart senses his opposite number has become allergic to further contact.

“For sure. When you’re going out there and you’re physical, you can tell other players instantly start to shy away from it. They don’t like to be touched. They don’t like to go through all that wrestling and grappling.”

Casey was cautious with Stewart’s stints earlier in the season, fearing the rookie’s motor would burn out with extended runs because of how consistently hard he played. But in six starts this season, Stewart’s numbers are 13.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 71.2 percent shooting and ratings of 142 on offense and 99 on defense, a preposterously favorable spread. And his per-36 minutes numbers are even better as a starter than as a reserve.

The surface, it appears, is getting scratched pretty vigorously. When Weaver came into the job talking about his passion for restoring the Pistons to past glories and invoking the names of players critical to the two championship eras – Thomas and Dumars, Billups and Wallace – while stating his desire to build this era of Pistons in their image, we now know he had Stewart in mind as one of the building blocks.

Stewart won’t be one to run from that history – any more than he shies away from the physical challenge of being a teenager in the NBA’s grown-man world.

“Toughness, grit, having that chip on your shoulder and not caring what anyone thinks,” he says of what he imagines when the concept of Pistons basketball is posed. “Just go out and play hard. Go out and do everything you’ve got to do to win. It’s great history with those teams, those players. The fact they see that in my game, it’s definitely a great thing to hear.”

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