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Isaiah Stewart is ready to stretch the limits

Beef Stew’s work ethic has endeared him to fans, but as he enters year 3, he will need to make some improvements to his game to show why he is a building block.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

I know I was one of many people scratching their heads when the Detroit Pistons took Isaiah Stewart with the 16th pick in the 2020 draft. The ground-bound center out of Washington was undersized, had athletic limitations, and didn’t have much stretch to his game.

All of those elements are a recipe for a career bench big. However, when his rookie season came around, Isaiah Stewart impressed with his ability to switch onto guards on defense, outwork everybody on the court, and even showed some surprising potential as an outside shooter. He was named to Second-Team All-Rookie, and the expectations around him shot through the roof.

Those increased expectations are what made some people view Stewart’s sophomore season as a bit of a disappointment. He played his role well, but his skillset as a center didn’t really overlap ideally with the kind of center you were looking to pair with Cade Cunningham. That is no fault of Stewart’s, but it did expose some of the flaws he has as a player.

He showed some potential as a shooter during his rookie season and then seemingly abandoned it for most of his sophomore campaign. He didn’t really show much of an ability as a pick-and-roll finisher and wasn’t exactly efficient scoring inside for somebody that gets so many opportunities around the rim.

However, he did make strides in other areas of his game, which leaves a lot of room for optimism about the man fondly know as “Beef Stew” as he starts his thid season in the NBA.

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Know Your Role, Isaiah Stewart

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Stewart is a huge part of the Pistons future. He will probably start every game this season. But there are still things he needs to do to solidify himself as a building block for the future. He will have a role on any future contending team with what he already provides, but there is potential for a starting center on a good team if he continues to improve and round out his game.

Stewart already does a few things very well. He is a very good switch defender who can be switched out onto wing players and stay in front of them. That is valuable for any team, but it is especially valuable as the Pistons eye pathways to success in future playoff series. He comes up a bit short in the rim protection department, but he also isn’t a complete liability protecting the rim as he uses his bulk and length extremely well.

He is also starting to master the art of the “highway screen,” and using his large body to run interference down the lane helps counteract his deficiencies as a pick-and-roll finisher. As he improved as a screener, Cade Cunningham and the other guards started to get easier attempts around the rim, which is the name of the game as a gritty, lunch-pail center.

He can continue to improve in these areas, and they will be in high demand in any iteration of the Detroit Pistons. However, there are still many areas of improvement that Stewart needs to focus on to make himself a starter for a future Pistons contender.

Stewart the Perimeter Threat

The most obvious development need is his nascent three-point shooting, which has been on full display in Summer League and in preseason after emerging in fits and starts in his first two years in the league.

Stewart shot 33% from beyond the arc as a rookie on 0.9 attempts per game. That is a very small sample size, but it was shocking because he didn’t really show off a jump shot much in college or high school. Last year, he basically abandoned his outside shooting to focus on improving other aspects of his game. He only shot 0.6 attempts per game and his percentage dipped to 32.6%.

However, he concluded the season with a 10-of-18 stretch from beyond the arc over the last few games of the season. This stretch renewed the optimism around Stewart’s outside shooting and he entered the summer with the goal of improving his outside shooting.

As more of a ground-bound center with not much ability as a pick-and-roll finisher or the ability to create his own shot, you have to be able to shoot the ball from outside on pretty high volume to find a role that is more than a bench big. And while I don’t foresee Stewart shooting 10 threes per game this season, he definitely needs to scale up his volume while also increasing the percentage at the same time.

That is easier said than done, but the Pistons seem very focused on making it happen. There will definitely be some bumps along the road, but throughout the Summer League and early parts of training camp, you have pretty much seen Stewart exclusively spot up from beyond the arc. Until he starts to hit shots consistently, he probably won’t attract the defense’s attention standing out on the perimeter, but they will eventually have to start to respect him as he continues to show an ability to hit shots from the perimeter consistently.

Pistons Want Two Bigs in a Small-Ball Era

The Pistons seem very focused on seeing if Stewart can work as a second big on the floor playing power forward, which is part of the reason for heavily focusing on his shooting. With Jalen Duren looking like the center of the future, the Pistons want to find a way for the two of them to play together. Beef Stew obviously needs to shoot the ball well from outside to pull off playing power forward, but that’s not the only skill he needs to master if he wants to slide down a position.

Stewart has little to no ability to make plays with the ball in his hands. The Pistons have a couple of guys who will dominate the ball in Jaden Ivey and Cunningham, but playing two frontcourt players who do absolutely nothing with the ball in their hands will be a tough ask for a team to play around (Editor’s Note: Don’t discount Jalen Duren’s ability to pass the ball. It’s early, but he’s looked good in this area).

Stewart doesn’t need to become a dynamic ball-handler or high-end passer, but he will have to be able to avoid being a ball-stopper on the perimeter. Being able to do things like dribble hand-off and screen, or make quick passing reads by swinging the ball or operating in the short roll. Simply standing outside and shooting 3s is not going to be enough for Isaiah Stewart to pass as more than spot-minute power forward.

He also doesn’t really have the foot speed to keep up with a lot of power forwards in the league. We have already covered his ability to switch, which is valuable for somebody that is guarding centers. However, it doesn’t really make him able to defend 4s full time. He works hard on defense and can probably get to a point of not being a complete liability, but his skillset on defense works well as a 5 as is, so it makes more sense to just let him play there.

Expectations for Beef Stew in the Rotation

Stewart likely starts most of his games at center early on this season. As the season wears on and they integrate Jalen Duren more in the rotation, you could see Isaiah Stewart at the 4 more. I think he is more valuable as a stretch 5 if his 3-point shooting improves, but the Pistons clearly have a different idea for what his role will be. It also could just be experimenting in a season that will likely result in another sub-30 wins.

Another thing that Stewart needs to get better at offensively is simply finishing inside. He shot 58% of his shot attempts within 0-3 feet of the rim, but only shot 59% on those attempts. That isn’t absolutely terrible, but for somebody getting pretty much all of their shots created for them by others, he needs to be more efficient inside.

Even passing out more on offensive rebounds instead of forcing up a shot could improve efficiency inside. But without much of an ability to get up high and finish lobs or strong post moves inside, Stewart probably never finishes inside as well as some of the top centers in the league do. And that is totally fine, it just means he has to be a bit more selective with his shots inside to ensure he isn’t forcing bad shots just because he catches the ball close to the rim.

Improving as a passer could help this quite a bit, also being on the perimeter means he is taking less shots inside. It will be important to make the most of the shots that he does take inside. You can look at Kelly Olynyk last season for the Pistons as an idea of what this could look like. He only shot 30% of his shots from 0-3 feet, but he hit 64% of those shots.

Obviously the hope is that Isaiah Stewart is a better player than Kelly Olynyk, but a lot of the things that he does as a stretch 5 that can limelight as a 4 are things that Isaiah Stewart should focus on doing. That combined with somebody who is a switchable defender at the 5 is a pretty solid all-around player.

Isaiah Stewart is never going to be somebody that can create their own shot and carry an offense. However, if he improves as a shooter and continues to improve as a switch defender and screen setter, there is a player there that could be a very valuable piece to a future Pistons contending team.

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