Rookie Isaiah Stewart drawing parallels to revered names in Pistons history: Rodman, Wallace

Dennis Rodman was retired before Isaiah Stewart was born and Stewart was 3 when Ben Wallace led the Pistons to their third NBA title in 2004. But he’s acutely aware of where those two names rank in franchise lore.

“Oh, yeah. For sure,” the rookie said Saturday, a day after helping the Pistons to their first win of the season – and of an era whose success will be determined largely by the fates of Stewart and his fellow rookies, Killian Hayes and Saddiq Bey. “Definitely, I know their names. Their names are up there in the rafters. I see them every day in practice. I know how much they mean to the city and to the Pistons.”

After the draft, there were whispers the front office saw some of Wallace in Stewart for his hustle and how he could model his NBA success. Dwane Casey has more than once referenced Rodman’s relentlessness in discussing Stewart’s pursuit of rebounds.

That’s a lot to put on a 19-year-old robbed of any semblance of a typical rookie experience by the COVID-19 pandemic that pushed the draft to November and wiped out Summer League and the subsequent rookie development programs NBA teams tailor for their draft picks.

But Stewart is offering early validation to those who would choose two of the most hallowed names in Pistons annals as role models for the 6-foot-9, 250-pound bundle of raw energy and good intent. Through three games, he’s tied with Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen atop the NBA’s offensive rebounding leaders at 4.0 per game. In fourth place is the Pistons all-time leader in offensive rebounds, Andre Drummond.

“To me, it’s just wanting it more than the next guy and just not being denied,” Stewart said. “It’s just a part of me. It’s who I am. If you put me out on the floor, it’s what you’re going to get out of me.”

Casey and Troy Weaver used one of the 10 in-person workouts each NBA team was allotted to go to Buffalo, N.Y., Stewart’s home town, to meet with him face to face. Weaver was already a believer based on all the background work he’d done that predated his hiring as Pistons general manager last June.

Casey, who met his wife, Brenda, when he was an assistant coach under George Karl in Seattle and still keeps a home there, also knew of Stewart from that link to Seattle.

“I thought he was a hard charger,” Casey said. “Being from Seattle, I knew about his presence and his game, how he played there. We went to his workout in Buffalo – he’d still be working out if we didn’t have a flight to catch.”

Stewart struck Casey as curious, thoughtful and earnest during the workout, which matched everything Weaver had come to know, using his connection to Stewart’s college coach, Mike Hopkins, who served with Weaver as assistants to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim in the early ’00s.

“There’s only one or two guys in my years of NBA draft workouts who asked the question, ‘Am I doing it right’ with pick-and-roll defense. ‘Let me try it here,’ and actually tried to do it. A very high basketball IQ guy. He’s very thoughtful. He was working out with a purpose,” Casey said.

Stewart left that meeting with the Pistons with the same sense of excitement Weaver and Casey felt.

“When I met with them in the predraft process, it was definitely a different vibe,” Stewart said. “Coach Casey was telling me their vision and what they wanted me to do. They felt like I fit and I felt the same way.”

Yet the Pistons went into draft night with the No. 7 pick – and only the No. 7 pick. There didn’t seem to be a way for the Pistons to wind up with Stewart, especially after drafting Killian Hayes with their lottery pick.

But Weaver was moving chess pieces behind the scenes and Stewart had an inkling – likely based on solid ground – that the Pistons were doing what needed to be done to reel him in.

“I had some reason to believe. I didn’t have no doubt,” he said. “Troy gets things done and that’s exactly what he did on draft night.”

When the Pistons wound up with the 16th pick, acquired in trade from Houston with a pick it had acquired earlier in the week for shipping Robert Covington to Portland, Stewart could begin packing his bag for Detroit.

“I was ready to get to work right away,” he said. “I was ready to grind. I was excited, but I was really more excited to fly out early the next day and get here and get to work.”

Stewart didn’t play in the first three Pistons games, but when Jahlil Okafor couldn’t go in game four at Atlanta Casey turned to Stewart. Even with Okafor back, Stewart has kept his spot in the rotation – and done nothing to warrant losing it. It’s been six weeks since he found out which NBA uniform he’d be wearing and there is much left to learn, but Casey at least knows he doesn’t have to coach effort with his eager rookie.

“You just try to teach,” Casey said. “But I’ll say this: It’s much easier to say ‘whoa’ than it is to say ‘giddyup.’ It’s one of those things I love about him. He plays hard and gets after it.”

There are a few guys whose jerseys hang in the rafters above Isaiah Stewart’s head as he toils whose NBA epitaphs read similarly.