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The Close Out: Rethinking Isaiah Stewart’s ceiling

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The Detroit Pistons rookie center’s immense potential is becoming evident

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When Troy Weaver picked Isaiah Stewart with the 16th overall pick in November’s draft, the selection was met with a mix of confusion and derision. Stewart performed well in his freshman season at the University of Washington, but he was largely reliant on his extraordinarily high motor rather than the more-skilled game that turns heads among pundits and NBA front offices.

The early assumption seems to be Stewart was good, but he was a guy who was born a decade too late. He could have been a heck of a bruising power forward even a decade ago, but it wasn’t clear how his older-school approach would translate to 2020.

Stewart immediately endeared himself to Detroit Pistons fans through that same vaunted high motor and effort level. He was a monster on the offensive boards and consistently out-worked his counterparts. Still, there were clear flaws that brought into question how high his ceiling could be.

Now 40 games in the season, it’s clear everyone must rethink exactly what Isaiah Stewart can be moving forward.

The rookie big has shown flashes of a lot of different valuable skills in the past couple months, and the impact of that has been evident on the floor.

Detroit has been at its best with Stewart on the floor—he’s the only Piston who has played at least 200 minutes and has a positive net rating. When he’s off the floor, the script flips—Detroit produces a -6.8 net rating without Stewart, even worse than when Jerami Grant is on the bench.

Stewart has made an immediate impact on the defensive end, where he’s showing that he can defend a variety of different players in different situations.

He’s been very good at limiting opponents at the basket—ranking well above average among high-volume rim protectors.

His defense in isolation plays has been very sound, and it’s something we discussed earlier in the year. Stewart ranks near the 50th percentile in isolation defense which would be good for any rookie but especially so for a big man who often has a quickness disadvantage against a guard or wing.

Against the Nets, Stewart added isolation expert James Harden to his growing list of impressive defensive performances in one-on-one spots when he quickly flipped his hips, kept up, and eventually blocked a shot:

Perhaps Stewart’s biggest defensive improvement since the beginning of the year has come in the pick-and-roll where he ranks in the 77th percentile in the league, best on the Pistons among qualifying players. He still sometimes struggles to find the right balance between pressuring the ball handler and defending the roll, but those incidents are becoming less frequent by the game.

And when he gets the balance correct, he can be quite good.

Watch how he was able to both impede Fred VanVleet enough to allow Delon Wright to recover (and yes, possibly foul) while still being able to easily recover to prevent a lob to Aron Baynes:

There, he flipped his hips multiple times to defend a two-on-one situation in space and did so much more fluidly than he did earlier in the season. That more free movement has a significant contributor to his excellent pick-and-roll defensive numbers.

We saw it when LaMelo Ball found himself in a screen situation and had his kick out pass stolen by Svi Mykhailiuk:

At first, it just looks like a great read by Svi (which it was), but Stewart’s defense is key here. He’s able to move his feet and stay in front of LaMelo while still cutting off the roll man. Stewart having the pick-and-roll under control allowed Svi to get aggressive and jump the passing lane. It may not end up in a calculation in Stewart’s favor anywhere, but this is every bit the equivalent of a defensive assist for the rookie.

Stewart has also shown some offensive chops in the pick-and-roll. That has been a bit more hit-or-miss and it bears itself out in his 45th percentile ranking in those situations. He still finds himself a bit lost as to where to go when he’s rolling hard, but he’s displayed a rather wide range of possibilities after he sets the screen.

If you’ve seen the Pistons recently, you know that Stewart has shown off a legitimate deep ball. He still hasn’t shot many attempts so any shooting percentage has serious sample size issues, but his form looks good.

Making this clutch three against the Charlotte Hornets after fading to the perimeter was impressive enough on its own, but take a close look at his footwork:

Rather than shoot flat-footed as is a tendency for many big men, Stewart initiated his shooting motion with a short backwards step off his right foot to get into rhythm. The rest of the motion took off from there, the top half of which looked exceptionally smooth.

Equally smooth was this wide-open three against the Toronto Raptors:

He’s more flat footed here, but he’s also balanced and able to repeat the smooth upper body motion for a nice, soft shot. As impressive is the fact that, despite he was so wide open, he shot this in rhythm rather than collecting himself and trying to initiate the motion himself. That indicates that he has quite a bit of confidence in his preparation to make this sort of shot without over-thinking it.

Adding a pick-and-pop to his game is encouraging, but that’s far from the extent of his actions after Stewart sets a screen.

When the Raptors overplayed a pick-and-roll with Delon Wright, Stewart cut his roll short and hit a wide open Sekou in the corner who unfortunately couldn’t finish off the play:

If Stewart can develop some playmaking and become something of a threat to pass the ball, it would unlock a myriad of possibilities offensively for him.

And if this pocket pass to Saben Lee is any indicator, there’s definitely something there to work with:

Regardless of how his passing develops, Stewart is going to need to become better at recognizing what to do moving towards the paint after he sets screens. And there has certainly been some improvement in that regard.

After screening against the San Antonio Spurs, he took a wider path on the roll to create some extra space in the middle of the floor and capped it off with a nice hook shot for two:

That wider than usual path indicates an understanding of the situation that hasn’t always been present for Stewart, but is certainly developing following his screens.

Earlier in the same game, he took a more direct route to the basket when he was already wider on the court and finished the play nicely through traffic:

Now yes, these are all highlights and are clearly designed to show the best parts of what Isaiah Stewart has done so far this season.

But the potential is the key here.

If he can develop these areas where he’s shown tangible ability halfway through his rookie season, Stewart may just have the high ceiling that led him to be a consensus top five recruit coming out of high school.