INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - OCTOBER 22: Andrew Nembhard #2 of the Indiana Pacers and Isaiah Stewart #28 of the Detroit Pistons battle for a loose ball in the second quarter at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on October 22, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. 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. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

At 21, Isaiah Stewart emerges as ‘the spirit’ of the Pistons

Troy Weaver’s stated goal of building a roster past Pistons championship teams and their fans would recognize and applaud is right on target. Right down to the fact that all the key components are building their own fan clubs.

Go to The Palace during the Bad Boys days and the “Laimbeer” and “Mahorn” jerseys would compete on equal footing with the “Thomas” and “Dumars” representatives. It was even more true in the Goin’ to Work era where each of the five familiar starters commanded something close to 20 percent of fans’ devotion. Contrast that with, say, Chicago, where “Jordan” jerseys are likely to still outnumber every other variety in the house combined.

The subsets of allegiances within the greater overall devotion to the Pistons are still sorting themselves out on Weaver’s edition, but if and when winning comes at the volume of the two championship eras there will be no shortage of “Cunningham” and “Ivey” and “Bey” and “Duren” jerseys in the seats at Little Caesars Arena.

But don’t shortchange the prospect of “Stewart” jerseys commanding their share of the market, either. If you ask a cross-section of Pistons fans to name the qualities they associate most with the franchise’s history, the composite player that would be spit out would look an awful lot like Isaiah Stewart.

“He’s kind of the spirit, the fiber of our team,” Dwane Casey said last week. “The toughness that you want to have, of what Detroit stands for – he’s that.”

Casey saw that in the chaotic first week two seasons ago – the pandemic season – when Stewart, two weeks after Weaver traded with Houston for the 16th pick in the 2020 draft, became a physical presence impossible to ignore in practices where he never went less than 100 percent.

A few weeks into his NBA career, as a 19-year-old, he earned a nickname that went viral. “Beef Stew” ideally fit the player who perfectly fit the image Pistons fans hold of their favorite team.

Weaver’s keen scouting eye coupled with his aggressive wheeling and dealing has blessed the Pistons with a deep cohort of young, athletic, high-pedigree prospects. Cade Cunningham oozes star charisma and Jaden Ivey radiates electric athleticism. Saddiq Bey has a 50-point game on his resume and is already in the Pistons record books for his 3-point shooting. Wait until Jalen Duren, 18, has taken a few laps around the NBA and figured out a few more things.

And for all of that, if you privately canvassed the room it would surprise no one if the consensus held that no one was more important to the future of the Pistons than Stewart. A big part of successful leadership is the willing acceptance of the responsibilities that go hand in hand with the recognition and adulation. Stewart checks that box, too.

“It just goes to show that they respect what I’m about and what I bring every day,” Stewart said. “I’m thankful that it doesn’t go unnoticed.”

One element of what that looks like – as crazy as it seems for a 21-year-old who would be embarking on his senior college season in a bygone era – is accelerating the integration of the precious assets Weaver has acquired in the past two drafts. Stewart and Duren are workout partners before and after practice out of convenience – they work on big man skills with first-year development coach Rashard Lewis – but Stewart has gone the extra mile by putting his arm around Duren and giving him helpful advice in equal measure with the bruises inflicted by a take-no-prisoners approach to their one-on-one matchups.

“It is kind of crazy,” Stewart said of his overnight ascension to leadership. “But time flies and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m thankful I get to help the young guys out. I was in their shoes coming into the league once.”

Stewart and Bey’s work ethic is the absolute tone-setter for the organization and that work has inspired confidence that starts with Weaver and Casey that Stewart is so much more than the undersized post player with limited perimeter potential that was the general scouting view of him after one season at Washington. When Weaver used the 16th pick on Stewart, the consensus was that he went about 10 spots too high. In an age where big men are only lightly valued, Stewart didn’t fit the rim-running, shot-blocking, lob-dunking profile of the modern prototype.

But in year two he ascended to starter and held his own against bigger and far more experienced centers. He became among the NBA’s very best pick-and-roll defenders with the lateral quickness to smother ballhandlers looking to exploit the matchup. His relentless physicality gradually erodes competitors’ willingness to engage. And Casey’s long-held belief that Stewart would evolve into a 3-point threat appears on the verge of being realized.

“He still has a ceiling because he’s grown so much since he first got here,” Casey said. “His entire game – his ballhandling, his passing, his feel for the game, his defensive feel. He’s growing. The great thing for our organization is he’s not a finished product.”

Stewart’s evolution isn’t only taking place on the court, either, but in all those other places where leadership is exercised.

“I just want to continue to be that heart and soul, be that backbone of this team” Stewart said. “Try to lead by example every day.”