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DETROIT, MI - FEBRUARY 10: Isaiah Stewart #28 of the Detroit Pistons looks on before the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on February 10, 2022 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)

2021-22 Rewind: Stewart’s 2nd season cements status as Pistons building block

Not all that long ago, Isaiah Stewart’s draft stock would have paralleled his recruiting status. That Stewart was a bona fide five-star recruit at or near the very top of his high school recruiting class and didn’t go in the lottery one year later speaks far more to the evolution of the NBA game over the past decade than it does to Stewart’s talent or makeup.

But Stewart is well on the way to beating expectations for 16th picks after two years in the NBA completed before turning 21. He went from quality backup as a Pistons rookie to starting center in year two and ended his second season on a clear upswing.

Here's a look at Stewart’s past, present and future:

PROFILE: 6-foot-8 center, 20 years old, 2 NBA seasons

2021-22 STATS: 8.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.1 blocks in 26 minutes a game on 51 percent shooting

STATUS: Stewart has two years remaining on the rookie scale contract he signed prior to the 2020-21 season

DID YOU KNOW?: Stewart helped the United States to a gold medal at the 2018 U17 World Cup in Argentina, finishing as the leading scorer with 15 points and nine rebounds in the championship win over France. Stewart averaged 11.1 points and 8.4 rebounds over seven games for Team USA. Among Stewart’s teammates were Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs, Scottie Barnes, Isaac Okoro and Evan Mobley. The leading scorer for France in that game? Pistons teammate Killian Hayes.

A LOOK BACK: Stewart grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and spent his first two years of high school basketball there before transferring to LaPorte, Ind., prep powerhouse La Lumiere. A member of the 2019 McDonald’s All-American team, Stewart chose to attend Washington over Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse. In one season with the Huskies, Stewart led the team in scoring (17.0), rebounding (8.8), blocked shots (2.1) and minutes (32) per game while playing alongside fellow freshman Jaden McDaniels, picked 28th overall in the 2020 draft by Minnesota. Stewart was ranked the No. 2 recruit in the 2019 class according to the consensus rankings index behind James Wiseman and ahead of Cole Anthony and Anthony Edwards. The Pistons picked Stewart 16th in 2020 and he came off the bench behind Mason Plumlee as a rookie, averaging 7.9 points and 6.7 rebounds in 21 minutes a game. Stewart and fellow Pistons rookie Saddiq Bey were invited to join USA Basketball’s Select Team to help the 2020 Olympic team prepare for the delayed Tokyo games last summer. Stewart suffered an ankle injury during that camp that saw him wear a walking boot for several weeks.

THE SEASON THAT WAS: With the draft-night trade that sent Plumlee to Charlotte, the Pistons cleared a path for Stewart to move into the starting lineup. That meant more than just a few more minutes a game – it meant going up against a different level of opponent every night. The drop-off from starting center to backup is perhaps the most pronounced of any position, putting Stewart to the test. Undersized by traditional measure for a starting NBA center at 6-foot-8, Stewart uses his 7-foot-4 wingspan and unusual strength to win positional battles and keep his man away from the rim even if that doesn’t always pad his rebounding statistics. Stewart mostly maintained his per 36-minute productivity – scoring decreased from 13.3 to 12.7 as shot attempts decreased slightly, rebounding increased from 11.2 to 12.2 – despite the added minutes and tougher matchups. After seeing a spike in 3-point attempts late in his rookie season, Stewart was encouraged by Dwane Casey to focus more on rolling to the basket instead of flaring to the 3-point line and the result was rare perimeter attempts. But after going 4 of 28 from the 3-point line over the season’s first 74 games, Stewart displayed the shooting touch that general manager Troy Weaver hinted at upon drafting him when he connected on 11 of 18 from the arc over the season’s final eight games. Stewart drew a two-game suspension when, after absorbing an elbow to the face from LeBron James that sent blood gushing from above his eye, he had to be restrained from pursuing James during a Nov. 21 game at Little Caesars Arena.

A LOOK AHEAD: Stewart established himself as one of the NBA’s best among big men when defending attacking perimeter players after getting switched on to them in pick and rolls this season and it’s for his defensive prowess foremost that Stewart has established himself as a foundational piece for the rebuilding Pistons. Stewart’s improvement over the second half of his second season wasn’t measured in traditional counting statistics as much as it was in the quality of shots created for the Pistons by his screening and the quality of shots denied at the other end by his capacity for smothering pick-and-roll ballhandlers and recovering to provide a physical presence in the paint. If the late-season surge in 3-point shooting proves sustainable, lineup combinations that include Stewart and another big man – Kelly Olynyk or Marvin Bagley III, perhaps – become more viable. Stewart also flashed the occasional ability to put the ball on the floor from the elbows and use his quickness and brute strength to gain angle advantages and create scoring chances. He also spread his wings some as a passer in those situations. Stewart’s strength and his willingness to put it to use is rare and his bruising playing style clearly wears on opponents. It remains to be seen if Stewart has as much physical maturation ahead of him as a typical 20-year-old, but the rest of the NBA can’t be thrilled to think of the bruises he’ll inflict over the next decade as Stewart better learns the tricks of the trade and incorporates them into his repertoire.

MONEY QUOTE:  “Isaiah Stewart has taken one of the biggest steps on our team in his role. Screening – how to screen, when to screen, the highway screen; taking advantage of switches in the post. He’s grown leaps and bounds in his role. He’s probably one of our best one-on-one defenders, believe it or not, at any position.” – Dwane Casey, in March, on Stewart’s progress