If Cade Cunningham is destined to be the draft choice with whom Troy Weaver is most associated, Isaiah Stewart might well be the one who speaks most to his tenacity and methodology as a talent evaluator.
Stewart was on full display as a draft prospect. He was identified very early as an elite player for his age, landing at an Indiana prep school from his upstate New York home and getting put into the USA Basketball pipeline as a 16-year-old. He was the No. 2 recruit in his high school class of 2019. The NBA had a clear picture of who Isaiah Stewart was long before he arrived at Washington for one season ahead of the 2020 NBA draft.
But maybe not a clear picture of what he was.
Unless you were Troy Weaver and dug a little deeper.
Scouts aren’t born with a gene that gives them insight into which players will fulfill their promise or turn out to be the best possible version of the lump of clay they represent at the age Stewart was when his name first came across NBA personnel desks.
The art of talent evaluation for NBA teams increasingly reliant on science to shape outcomes, at its core, is information gathering. Accumulate as much as possible and then have in place a decision-maker who can sift through it all and come to clear-eyed conclusions.
That proves enormously challenging. Groupthink is a powerful thing. All the people charged with making those monumental decisions that decide the fates of multibillion-dollar franchises gather in the same sweaty gyms to watch the same blossoming prospects. Coming to independent conclusions, while also considering valid differing perspectives, is where the rubber meets the road.
For all the clamor for teams to rebuild with high lottery picks and for all the preposterously vast resources now funneled into getting those picks right, it should be noted that the last four NBA Most Valuable Player awards have gone to players picked 15, 15, 41 and 41.
The Pistons, in Weaver’s first draft, grabbed Stewart 16th. That was at least a handful and more like 10 or 12 spots ahead of where most credible mock drafts had him going despite his long history as a prospect. The consensus saw an undersized player at his position – a position that’s been devalued, at that – and wasn’t quite sure how he fits in today’s NBA.
What did Weaver see in Stewart that others missed?
“A good scout does his work early,” Weaver said after the season. “You’ve got to make sure you turn over every rock when you’re evaluating a player. I was fortunate enough to be in gyms and see situations that led me to believe that Isaiah could move his feet and he could shoot the ball a little bit.”
There’s a lot more involved than showing up ten minutes before tipoff and staying until the horn blows to end the game. It’s showing up a few hours before games to see a prospect’s approach to his pregame workout. Does he work on the right things? Does he work on them with an intensity that translates to games? Does he engage respectfully with the staffers putting him through his paces? It’s going to college practices and talking to everyone from the head coach to the student assistants to add layer upon layer of information.
And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Body language during tough in-game moments. Level of engagement with media after the game and whether blame is accepted for unwanted outcomes and credit shared for successes. Feedback from teachers and parents of teammates and AAU figures from a prospect’s past are the basics. Going the extra mile, making the next phone call, watching every last game tape – there’s an advantage to be gained somewhere in the information-gathering process and the best in the business are driven to find it.
“We try to make sure we turn over every rock when we evaluate players,” Weaver said. “In Isaiah’s case, he’s proven us right on being able to move his feet and shoot the ball a little bit, so we feel good about that.”
If you land a player with the 16th pick that manages to carve out anything approaching a significant career, you’re beating the odds. The four players taken 16th in the years before Stewart: Chuma Okeke, Zhaire Smith, Justin Patton and Guerschon Yabusele. The last three are out of the league.
It remains to be seen what a fully realized version of Isaiah Stewart can achieve, but the baseline he’s established in two seasons already beats reasonable expectations for 16th picks. In every category that matters when trying to project capacity for improvement – work ethic, competitive spirit and mental toughness high among them – Stewart passes with flying colors. A scout who does his work early already knew that. Of course Troy Weaver did.