If the Pistons are destined to be defined by Cade Cunningham in style, their substance seems just as surely in the hands of Isaiah Stewart.
There is much that has to come into focus yet before Troy Weaver and Dwane Casey’s Pistons are what they envision, but the outline of what Cunningham already has come to mean for their offense is unmistakable. You could say the same for how Stewart has come to represent their identity as a team that won’t back down no matter the circumstances.
No better example exists than the night of Jan. 30 when the Cleveland Cavaliers, unequivocally the NBA’s most surprising team this season, arrived flying high. After racing to a 15-0 lead, they were at stratospheric levels. The Pistons wound up winning by 10. Cunningham’s name was on the marquee for that win, recording his second career triple-double with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists after missing all 10 of his first-half shots.
But the player lovably known as Beef Stew played a role no less pivotal in tenderizing the NBA’s most imposing frontcourt, one featuring three players that night – Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Dean Wade – all taller than him. The Pistons wound up outrebounding Cleveland 48-41 with Stewart at the heart of it. He finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds and has been on a roll ever since.
“The thing about Isaiah, he’s going to try to outwork everybody,” Cunningham said after the win. “He’s such a big piece for this team, just how hard he works. It’s contagious for everybody. We feed off his energy.”
Casey saw the impact Stewart could have in the first few days of training camp when he was a 19-year-old rookie. The longer practice went, the less eager veterans were to absorb the contact Stewart relishes doling out.
“It’s a 15-round bout,” Casey said. “The way he plays, how hard he plays, a lot of guys don’t want to battle the entire night.”
Stewart has averaged 13.3 rebounds over a six-game stretch that began with the Cleveland game. Only Nikola Vucevic, at 13.5, has averaged more over that span. On Stewart’s heels is a virtual who’s-who parade of NBA big men that includes Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis and Domantas Sabonis.
Just wait until Stewart, 20, reaches “old-man strength” levels.
“I’ve just been playing for my teammates,” he said after another double-double with 14 points and 15 rebounds in Tuesday’s game at Dallas. “Just buying into my role. I can get us extra possessions being a beast on the board and cleaning the glass.”
That Stewart has maintained his per-36 productivity off a debut season good enough to land him on the All-Rookie second team while going from reserve to starter – and seeing his minutes load gradually tick up – is especially encouraging to Casey. He’s doing it now against all those elite centers who join him on the rebound leader board rather than the backups he battled most of his rookie season.
“He’s really setting the tone for us in the paint,” Casey said. “He’s going against starters and having the same numbers. That’s a sign of growth in itself.”
And Weaver and Casey see more – much more – ahead. Weaver saw something in Stewart that most had a hard time projecting in evaluating him as a 6-foot-8 18-year-old playing in the middle of Washington’s zone defense two years ago. Weaver saw a player who had the touch to step away from the paint and become a weapon and Casey is convinced that day is coming. He flashed 3-point ability as his rookie season wound down – Stewart hit 6 of 15 over his final three games – but hasn’t taken it much this season.
“The older he becomes, the easier the three. The more the game will slow down for him and he can concentrate on his threes,” Casey said. “Right now, our goal for him is to shoot the mid-range, the elbow jump shots, the short rolls, more than worrying about the 3-point shot. Let’s really concentrate on that elbow jump shot, mid-range jump shots, at the rim and then let’s gradually move out. Kind of back to square one.”
Stewart makes it easy to wait on his jump shot for everything else he means to the Pistons, starting with his indisputably pure intent.
“He wants to make the right play every time,” Cunningham said. “He wants to get everybody else going. We know he’s working hard for us.”