Pistons fans weren’t the only ones to get flashbacks of Ben Wallace while watching Isaiah Stewart barge through his rookie season with a furrowed brow and set jaw. They weren’t even the first. Troy Weaver saw those traits in Stewart on the scouting trail even before he landed at Washington for his one and only college season.
And now Weaver and Dwane Casey are ensuring Stewart is given every tool necessary to continue down the path Wallace navigated with Hall of Fame force and determination during his time as the anchor of the 2004 NBA championship Pistons – by having Wallace serve as tutor to Stewart.
“Ben is going to be with us this week in training camp working with our big guys,” Casey said minutes after the first practice of camp had wrapped up with Wallace and Stewart standing side by side, protégé peppering mentor with questions. “Post defense, showing them the tricks of the trade. Just to have Ben around and have an example for Isaiah and Luka (Garza) and Kelly (Olynyk) is so important. For what he’s done and what he means to this franchise, really excited about having Ben as part of our organization.”
Casey hinted at more to come, too, saying Wallace would be around this season, scouting and filling other roles, perhaps. Bottom line, the 20-year-old Stewart – who comes about as close as anyone has to matching the almost cartoonishly muscular physique Wallace developed – is going to have an ideal sounding board at hand at a critical point of his evolution.
“Today was probably the most I ever talked to him,” Stewart said. “I took advantage of the time and asked as many questions as I can. Hearing he’s going to be around more, I’m definitely going to be picking his brain. I hope he doesn’t get tired of that.”
Stewart isn’t kidding, either. Talk to those around the Pistons and they all marvel at how devoted Stewart is to maximizing his athletic gifts. In Wallace, he’ll find someone who’ll be extraordinarily giving of his time but beyond that offer rare insight that Stewart – similarly undersized as a center as Wallace was in his day – can process and put to use. All Wallace asked of the young teammates that passed through the rosters he populated was the same dedication to his craft as he invested. Jason Maxiell, for one, benefited greatly from Wallace’s tutelage and wisdom.
Already, Stewart is embracing the idea of serving as the anchor of the Pistons defensively as they prioritize improvement at that end of the floor. There are a thousand steps the 20-year-old and his team must take before any relevant comparisons can be made between this version of the Pistons and Big Ben’s Goin’ to Work bunch, but it’s a journey that won’t be blunted by lack of willpower.
“Being drafted by the Pistons, you’ve got to know some of the rich history and Ben Wallace is a player I did know coming in,” Stewart said. “Just his game and how great he was.”
Rubbing up against greatness is always a dynamic teaching tool if eagerly embraced, which explains why Pistons brass was proactive about sending Stewart and young teammates Saddiq Bey and Cade Cunningham to Springfield early this month to be part of Wallace’s Hall of Fame induction celebration.
“It was an honor,” Stewart said. “Appreciate the Pistons and Ben Wallace for allowing me to be there. It was great to see him be inducted. That’s everyone’s dream, to be a Hall of Famer. To see someone like Ben, who had a great career and played great on the court, for him to go undrafted and to be a Hall of Famer is pretty great.”
Wallace, indeed, had to come in through the NBA’s back door to become the first and only undrafted player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. Stewart, a five-star recruit and a one-and-done college star, took the red-carpet entrance. But there are far more similarities to their stories than differences, starting with the fiber of their makeup. The Pistons are doing everything in their control to make sure those similarities extend to the unfolding of their time wearing the franchise’s uniform.