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Isaiah Stewart: Taking stock in the progression and regression of his game in year 2

Isaiah Stewart might be frustrating on offense in his second season, but he is growing on the defensive end

Brooklyn Nets v Detroit Pistons Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

In the 2020 NBA Draft, the Detroit Pistons selected the undersized center out of Washington, Isaiah Stewart. Standing at just 6-foot-9 with a limited perimeter game, the Stewart pick was widely considered a reach. An early-season injury to Jahil Okafor vaulted Stewart from a third-string project to the backup center. He was quick to win over the Pistons faithful with tenacious energy, earning the nickname “Beef Stew” and quickly showed that expectations for him were too low, and he earned a position on the NBA’s All-Rookie Second Team.

Hope and expectations were ratcheted much higher for the fan favorite entering his sophomore year. However, an injury with USA Basketball eliminated Stewart’s offseason, and he lost the most important time for players, especially young players, to work on their craft.

Unsurprisingly, he started the year slowly as he was reacclimating himself to the speed and intensity of game action. Stewart’s slow start to the season has been the source of fan frustration, and the lack of development as a jump shooter has been a constant topic for discussion.

People are so hyperfocused on his lack of development on the offensive end, where he remains a second-chance scorer and fifth option that they are completely missing the progress he has made on the defensive end. It is time to talk about areas where Stewart has ‘progressed’ as well as ‘regressed’

Interior Scoring

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Stewart’s game this season has been his inability to register points in the scorer's column. It’s well known Stewart doesn’t have the vertical athleticism to compete above the rim, however, that did not stop him from scoring in the paint as a rookie. In his debut season, Stewart showed flashes of having a soft touch around the basket as well as the ability to play effectively in the pick and roll.

So far this season, the former Washington Huskie has struggled to finish as a roll man in pick-and-roll scenarios. There are numerous times each game where Stewart’s lack of finishing ability as a roll man impacts Detroit’s offense. Stewart as a roll man presents the ball handler with issues because he doesn’t have the ability to catch and finish over his opponent. Often leading the ball handler to throw a bounce pass to compensate for the lack of ‘lob’ threat, resulting in possessions like this:

In both instances, Stewart was open for a lob pass for the easy dunk. However, due to his lack of vertical burst, Bey elects to throw a bounce pass, allowing the defender to recover and disrupt Stewart at the rim.

The numbers back up the eye test when it comes to Stewart’s deficiencies as a pick and roll partner on offense. Per Synergy Sports, Stewart is generating 0.89 points per possession (PPP) as a ‘P&R’ roll man, down significantly from 1.18 PPP as a rookie. Stewart can enhance these numbers if he is able to develop the outside shot, providing options as a pick and pop big. Similarly, if he can develop his playmaking and shot creation to an adequate level, there is potential for him to expand his game as a short roller.

While Stewart has been mediocre as a rim finisher in his young career, in his first season he ranked in the 80th percentile as a post scorer, scoring 1.06 PPP. For perspective, the 2020-21 MVP, Nikola Jokic averaged 1.04 PPP, while the volume for Stewart was significantly less than Jokic, the efficiency was still a positive development. As a sophomore, the second-year big man has struggled to convert in the post, ranking in the lowly 38th percentile as a post scorer, offering up a cheap 0.83 PPP. While the post game is a dying art, it’s important for a big with Stewart’s physical profile to be able to convert on mismatch opportunities.

Verdict: Regression

Defense

As the only true defensive big on the roster, Stewart has done an admirable job anchoring the defense. Stewart has been the key driver behind this Detroit roster not being the worst defense in the league. In fact, in the last five games without Jerami Grant, Detroit ranks 13th in the league for defensive rating. For the entire season, Detroit ranks 22nd in the league, which is somewhat surprising for a team with a league worse, 5-24 record.

The former Huskie has been a necessity for solid Piston defense. Prior to the Knicks game, per Cleaning the Glass, when Stewart is off the court, Detroit allows -5.6 points per 100 possessions, which is even better than last season’s -4.9. While these numbers can be viewed as favorable to Stewart as he is the sole big on the roster, the eye-test backs up the metrics. Stewart’s lateral quickness has been on full display this season. He has been incredibly versatile, using his lateral quickness to contain and alter opponents shots:

In his rookie season, Stewart established himself as a good defender of the pick and roll, allowing 0.82 PPP. This season, the former lottery pick has shown further improvement, allowing only 0.71 PPP, placing him in the category of the leagues best defensive bigs. Stewart’s improvement as a roll man defender has him ranked ahead of; Bam Adebayo (0.80PPP), Deandre Ayton (1.06PPP) and Anthony Davis (1.44PPP). A season and a half into his career, Stewart has already established himself as one of the better versatile defenders in the league.

Verdict: Progression

Perimeter Scoring

The most immediate regression that comes to mind when comparing Stewart’s rookie and sophomore seasons, is the lack of development as a perimeter threat. In fact, it’s not just the efficiency of Stewart’s jump-shot that's in question, rather, it’s the frequency in which he is (or isn’t) taking them.

Isaiah Stewart shot distribution
cleaningtheglass.com

As per Cleaning the Glass, Stewart’s attempts from the mid-range and three-point line are down 6% and 7%, respectively. The decline in jump shot attempts has the second-year center ranked in the 31st percentile amongst bigs, not a great place to be for a 5-man that doesn’t pose as a lob threat.

While the lack of three-point attempts has been discussed at length, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Stewart’s lack of jump-shooting; is that he was a great mid-range shooter as a rookie. Last season, on 104 attempts, Stewart shot 51% from the mid-range, ranking him in the 87th percentile (!) amongst bigs.

Without the threat of a jump-shot, Stewart’s lack of gravity has hurt the Piston offense significantly. Detroit offense rating with Stewart off the floor is +7.3, for comparison, the offense is +5.1 per 100 possessions when back-up center Kelly Olynyk is on the floor. While Olynyk is more than just a stretch big, the spacing he provides helps open the floor for Detroit ball handlers.

The lack of development with Stewarts' jumper can be attributed to a multitude of circumstances. First, the ankle injury he suffered whilst participating for the U.S. Olympic team this past summer, Cade Cunningham’s initial shooting struggles have been attributed to his similar ankle injury. Secondly, it appears Stewart has changed his shooting form over the offseason:

While I’m certainly no shot doctor, anytime a player adjusted his shooting form, it can be easy for them to lose confidence in their new stroke. Hence, the loss in confidence could be hindering Stew’s decision-making as a jump shooter, particularly in the mid-post area.

Finally, the lack of shooting could merely be a result of the coaching staff not wanting to feature a steady diet of Stewart jumpers. While the coaching decisions are a contentious topic amongst fan’s, Stewart may simply be struggling in practice to knock down open looks.

For a team that opened the season shooting historically poor, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to feature a big man with a developmental jump-shot. Post All-star break is normally when we see players allowed to explore raw parts of their game. This was definitely the case last season, as Stewart attempted 57 of 63 three point looks after All Star break.

Verdict: Regression

Rim Protection

Isaiah Stewart has been a great rim protector at all levels of basketball, from day one in the NBA he was able to protect the paint. While Stewart doesn't have the typical height of a center, he has an egregious 7’4 wingspan which allows him to disrupt taller opponents. The former lottery pick ranked in the top 5 amongst his rookie class for defended field goal percentage (DFG%) within 6ft of the basket. While it was encouraging to see his shot blocking translate as a rookie, Stewart still ranked outside the top-20 for DFG% within 6 ft amongst big men.

In 27 games as a sophomore, Stewart has shown great improvement as a rim protector. Stewart currently ranks third among starting bigs for DFG% within 6ft, holding opponents to 47% shooting around the rim. Stewart ranks third behind only Jaren Jackson Jr. (45.7%) and 3x DPOY, Rudy Gobert (44.7%). Stewart has shown improved body control and timing this season when contesting shots at the rim, especially on smaller opponents:

The block numbers for Stewart haven’t increased since assuming the role of starting center. However, perhaps more encouragingly, Stewart has been able to reduce his foul rate, something you don’t typically see from young bigs taking on a larger role. As per NBA.com, per 100 possessions, Stewart has reduced his fouls per game as a rookie from 6.2 to 5.0. It’s been incredibly important to this year's big-stricken Piston team that Stewart hasn’t taken himself out of many games due to foul trouble.

Verdict: Progression

It’s certainly far too early to be ‘out’ on Isaiah Stewart as a key piece to Detroit’s self-proclaimed restoration. After a slow first month of the season, Stewart’s numbers are up across the board, averaging double figures in points and rebounds in his last 9 games. While the lack of improvement on offense has been frustrating, Stewart still has the potential to be a defensive menace for a gritty Piston team. In many ways, Stewart embodies the hard-working, no-nonsense attitude of the Detroit Piston franchise. With the arrival of franchise centerpiece; Cade Cunningham, and another high lottery pick this off-season, Stewart has the potential to be a valuable piece in the next successful iteration of the franchise.