(Editor’s note: As the 2022-23 season approaches, Pistons.com will examine the key storylines for the season ahead and beyond. Today: How aggressive will the Pistons be with Isaiah Stewart’s transition to power forward?)
Even as Isaiah Stewart rarely strayed outside the paint as an NBA rookie, Dwane Casey insisted that one day he would launch 3-point shots often and effectively. Sure enough, after taking only 28 triples in the first 63 games, Stewart squeezed off 35 in his final 10 games and hit 6 of 15, 40 percent, in the last three alone.
Then his second season began and Stewart almost never took a triple unless the ball found him with the shot clock about to go off and his options severely limited. The blueprint was exactly as it was a year earlier: 28 3-point shots over Stewart’s first 63 games.
That was by design. As a newly elevated starter, Stewart faced enormous challenges as the quarterback of Casey’s defense and was doing it while adjusting to the serious uptick in quality of opposition that comes when you go from battling backups to knocking heads with starting centers. Nowhere is the drop-off from starter to reserve more pronounced than among big men and Casey didn’t want Stewart complicating his transition by also taking on the onus of 3-point shooting.
Not when he was asking more fundamental steps from him. What Casey really wanted to see from Stewart on the offensive end was setting rib-rattling screens and then barreling to the rim – the “roll” part of screen and roll – in what has come to be known as a “highway” screen for the pathway an effective roll man can blaze for the trailing ballhandler. Cade Cunningham and Stewart developed a keen chemistry for the maneuver over the second half of last season, in fact.
When Stewart’s second season was down to its final few weeks, Casey pulled his big man aside and gave him the OK to start feeling his way as a 3-point shooter. It’s a shot they’ve watched Stewart, as coachable and diligent a young player as an NBA team could hope to land, work on tirelessly and shoot confidently in practices and individual workouts.
Over the last eight games of 2021-22, Stewart took 18 triples and made 11 of them. In the weeks between the April 10 season finale and Summer League in early July, Stewart – who had yet to play in Summer League season, his first wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic and his second aborted by an ankle injury suffered in workouts with USA Basketball’s Select Team – prepared to play his minutes at power forward.
When Troy Weaver, who saw a more expansive future offensive arsenal in Stewart than his NBA peers did and acted accordingly to draft him 16th in 2020, somehow maneuvered to pick up a second lottery pick in June and used it to land Memphis big man Jalen Duren, Stewart not only got to play power forward but do so next to a bona fide fellow cornerstone of the Pistons future.
In two games, Stewart showed enough to raise optimism that his transition to becoming a legitimate 3-point threat would not only bear fruit but was ahead of schedule. He hit 5 of 9 shots, including clutch triples late to secure Pistons wins.
“That was super impressive,” Pistons Summer League coach Jordan Brink said after Stewart hit 3 of 4, two in the final three minutes, to beat eventual Summer League champion Portland in the July 7 opener. “He was ready for it. We talked before the game and we were going to try to get him some looks from three. Two of them opened up in the flow of the game at the end and they were huge.”
“I’ve never played the four in my life, so that’s one reason I wanted to play in a Summer League game is to get reps at the four,” Stewart said. “I know we’ve got about two, three bigs and we wanted to play with two bigs. Somebody’s going to have to space the floor, so I wanted to get reps at it and it was definitely different, for sure.”
The same quandary of how to shoehorn multiple big men into the rotation applies to the Pistons 2022-23 regular season as it did to the Summer League puzzle. Stewart, Kelly Olynyk and Marvin Bagley III all return and are joined by both Duren and trade addition Nerlens Noel. If Stewart can handle playing power forward at both ends of the floor, Casey’s latitude in lineup construction expands greatly.
A name whispered in Pistons circles when Weaver drafted Stewart two years ago as an aspirational outcome at the offensive end was Al Horford, the 15-year veteran and five-time All-Star. Horford took a total of 65 3-point shots in his first eight NBA seasons; he’s topped 200 a season six times since then. It’s a process.
And, to be clear, shooting 3-pointers effectively at any significant volume is only part of the equation of transitioning to more of a hybrid center/power forward role for Stewart. At least as critical a component will be his ability to defend a variety of players who man that position. Stewart established himself last season as a big man who could reliably stay in front of perimeter ballhandlers when he got switched on to them, which bodes well for his chances to hold his own at that end while playing away from the basket against more nimble opponents. Chasing shooters around screens will be another challenge for him.
How aggressively Casey decides to pursue two-big lineups will swing on many factors, but unlocking them at any appreciable level likely starts with how comfortably Stewart adapts to increasingly bigger tests of playing time away from the paint at both ends. It probably won’t take 63 games again to get some answers on that front.