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Exit Interview: Isaiah Stewart became a fan favorite on his way to crushing expectations

The rookie center’s future in Detroit is extremely bright.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

When Troy Weaver selected Isaiah Stewart with the 16th overall pick, there was plenty of head-scratching to go around. Stewart was a big-time recruit and had a solid freshman year but was projected to go later in the draft and appeared to be an old-school big with a limited ceiling.

The University of Washington product instantly endeared himself to the Motor City fans with his high energy and relentless attack of the boards. Early on, he looked the part of the gritty center with limited offense that has been a staple of previous Detroit Pistons championship teams.

Stewart quickly showed that he has a lot more in his bag, however.

Very early in the year, he overtook Jahlil Okafor for the backup center role. Not long after that, it became clear that lineups with Stewart were outperforming those with Mason Plumlee. He showed enormous potential on both ends of the floor while adding tools to his repertoire on a regular basis.

Entering his first offseason as a professional, Stewart’s aim undoubtedly will be to supplant the rest of Detroit’s centers as the clear starter for 2021-22.

The Good

What instantly stood out watching Isaiah Stewart this year was how big of a bully he is in the best possible way.

When he was in the paint, he moved defenders to grab rebounds at a high rate and finish well near the rim. Stewart used his large frame exceptionally well to get to the spots he needed to be and not many opponents were successful at deterring him.

But he developed into much more than just a garbage man around the rim.

Detroit found success with Stewart serving as a high ball screener for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, he was a big body that set solid screens to give ball handlers extra space to operate. Then as the year progressed, Stewart showed that he could be a threat once the screen clears. And he did it in a variety of ways.


He showed a pick-and-pop game:

As opponents began to close out on his respectable three-point shooting, he showed an aptitude for attacking careless closeouts:

Stewart slipped screens and finished at the rim when opponents overplayed the screen:

And when defenses gave him the mid-range, he took advantage of that:

The numbers bear out Stewart’s ability to execute at all areas from the floor. He shot over 64% inside three feet, over 50% from both 3-10 feet and 10-16 feet, and 42% from outside of 16 feet and inside the arc. Oh, and he shot 33% from deep on a much bigger sample than anyone expected in his rookie year.

None of those sample sizes are huge by any means, but the process looked just as good as the results.

The process was equally great on the defensive end of the floor.

Stewart showed an impressive ability to stay with talented guards and wings on switches when he found himself on the perimeter.

On several occasions, he stymied James Harden when switched on him:

He handled a Donovan Mitchell crossover while forcing a turnover:

And he even stayed with Stephen Curry playing him at the height of the screen:

When he dropped to the paint, Stewart displayed patience beyond his years in diagnosing actions and contesting multiple options. All rookie bigs leave their feet more often than they need to, but Stewart committed that error far less than normal for a prospect of his age.

His ability to defend at all areas on the floor made a difference over the Pistons’ other centers and it played out in the numbers: Detroit’s defense was over six points worse per 100 possessions when Stewart sat.

The Bad

Is there really anything bad to say about Isaiah Stewart’s rookie year?

He didn’t make the All-Star team or set any scoring records.

Seriously, although he made your typical rookie mistakes, they were fewer and farther between than anyone had a right to expect of Stewart entering the season.

He needs to continue to work on his shooting range, but the early returns on that were encouraging.

Perhaps his biggest downfall was in the nuances of the game after he set screens. Early in the year, he would often roll into a space that the ball handler wanted to occupy. That clogged up the paint and screwed up spacing when it happened, but Stewart improved in that regard as well. That’s a small thing, but remarkably, we’re already at nit-picking stages in his development.

Should he stay or should he go?

Regardless of your nickname for him, everyone should agree that Isaiah Stewart stays at all costs.

His development at 19 years old was incredibly encouraging and with more local eyes sure to turn to Detroit this year, Stewart’s already high popularity is going to soar to heights not seen since the Goin’ to Work era.

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