‘He’s so big and so strong’ – Pistons rookie Stewart learning how to put his gifts to use on defensive end

Isaiah Stewart
Pistons rookie Isaiah Stewart is expanding his game at both ends of the floor and ranks among NBA rookie leaders in a number of categories
Zach Beeker (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

To the casual observer – and at the risk of using “casual” in any sentence with rambunctious rookie Isaiah Stewart as the subject – it’s been easier to spot the offensive evolution of the Pistons 19-year-old center than it has his growth defensively.

But it’s there, noticeable to the folks who matter most and greatly appreciated by Stewart’s coaches and teammates.

It starts with his physical toolkit – nimble feet, a 7-foot-4¾ wingspan and strength that belies his birth certificate – but is tied with a double-knot bow by his tenacity and fortitude. And now it’s been supplemented by a spin through the NBA, Stewart topping 1,000 minutes in Saturday’s game at Portland.

“Night and day,” six-year veteran center Jahlil Okafor says of Stewart today vs. Stewart in training camp at the defensive end. “He’s picked up everything very fast.”

Stewart leads all NBA rookies in rebounds per game (5.9), offensive rebounds per game (2.2), blocks per game (1.0) and shooting percentage (.569). He’s doing that in a little less than 20 minutes a game, though Stewart’s minutes have inched up month over month as he earns a broader role while his offense and defense grow more diversified and reliable.

To that end, Stewart’s recent success as a 3-point shooter has generated keen interest. He hit another in Sunday’s wildly entertaining loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in his only try.

To be sure, a center who shows the potential to be an above-average 3-point shooter opens up a world of possibilities for his team’s attack. But Dwane Casey is inclined to wait on the 3-point shot and focus more on the meat and potatoes of Stewart’s game: rebounding, protecting the rim, suffocating pick-and-roll plays, screening and using his voice. On that latter point, Casey has seen – heard, rather – Stewart make great gains.

“Communication. He’s gotten much better. He’s got a better feel for what he should say,” Casey said. “A lot of times, young players don’t say anything – don’t know what to say. So he’s more comfortable in his own skin communicating, directing traffic. That’s half the battle in pick-and-roll defense and that’s what this league is about.”

The other half of it for Stewart might be the physical nature of his play and how it wears on opponents. A part of Stewart’s value is the palpable intensity he expends and how that rubs off on his team. Casey’s Toronto teams always were among the NBA’s most physical, not by accident, and he observed early with Stewart how those who have to bang with him can get gun shy or frustrated and taken out of their comfort zone.

As Casey put it last week, “I wouldn’t rassle Isaiah with an iron pipe.”

At 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds, Okafor gives as good as he gets, but he’s jostled Stewart enough since training camp to know he’s on the far end of the bell curve among NBA strongmen.

“He’s so big and so strong, when opposing big men are in there trying to get position on him, they really can’t,” Okafor said. “They’re usually off balance. The shots are not usually even close to going in because of how strong he is. He makes it really hard for people to get good position on him.”

There is still so much ahead for Stewart, so many areas where he can – and certainly will – get better as he matures and gains experience. He’s shooting 42 percent from the 3-point arc but has taken just 26 from there all season, but he’s also shooting 54.5 percent on shots from 10 to 16 feet – a pretty solid indicator that he’ll be an effective 3-point shooter sooner than anyone might have expected after taking only 20 in his freshman season at Washington.

Defensively, too, Casey can tick off a few areas where Stewart can get incrementally better.

“Can he get better at taking charges or blocking shots or going vertical? That’s an area we work on with him every day. The main thing he brings to the table now is communication.”

Okafor sees the raw tools – and the raw desire – to hasten his defensive growth curve.

“He moves his feet extremely well,” he said. “The one thing I’ve been surprised by is how well he does on switches. He’s really good at guarding perimeters. He takes the isolation personal. Hats off to him.”

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