The human brain, studies have shown, are wired to scout for the bad stuff. We have a natural tendency to focus on the negatives as opposed to positive experiences. In the sports take industrial complex, fans and media alike feed off the engagement dopamine rush of picking at the struggles of a player or franchise. The abundance of negativity tends to result in crowding out an individual or organization’s positive output.
In the case of Isaiah Stewart, as he enters an extension-eligible third season, his standing within the rosters pecking order fluctuates with varying degrees of severity. Following a surprisingly successful rookie campaign, the NBA community at large predicted a breakout sophomore year for the 6-foot-8 big-man. However, an offseason ankle-injury and an iffy jumpshot Stewart didn’t trust dimmed some of the spotlight on Stewart’s potential. Folks fixated on what Stewart couldn’t do and how a player that couldn’t showcase range or play above the rim was dragging down the Pistons’ offense. It’s not that those arguments weren’t valid, it’s that the focus on the negativity prevented fans from seeing how a 21-year-old, second-year player was able to anchor the Pistons’ defense.
Its common place for a rookie to enter the league and exceed expectations, only to struggle in their second year as people recalibrate their expectations. This is especially true when a talent taken outside of the lottery suddenly pops in Year 1 as Stewart did.
In the second-half of 2021-22, Stewart displayed a welcomed versatility to his widely criticized offensive repertoire, providing immense optimism for an important third year in the Motor City. The kind of dynamism Stewart provides at his size has become a staple feature to a host of playoff rotations in recent years.
Stewart provides a versatile skillset at both ends of the floor
In the modern NBA, big’s registering major minutes not only need to provide spacing offensively but, in order to counteract opponent spacing, the most valuable bigs are also able to showcase switchability, especially in a playoff setting when opponents often have a seemingly endless supply of 6-foot-8 players who can shoot, pass and finish.
In recent years, we’ve seen incredible defensive centers like Rudy Gobert struggle to provide the same defensive impact in the playoffs. Milwaukee’s 7-foot big-man Brook Lopez, has encountered similar issues. Simply put, today’s front court players require defensive malleability not seen in prior decades. Lucky for Detroit, Stewart, while undersized for a traditional center, is able to use his wide berth, immense strength and 7-foot-4 wingspan to provide flexibility at both ends of the floor.
Ball Screen Versatility
In the opening months of the season, Stewart struggled to find chemistry in the pick-and-roll with Detroit’s ball-handlers. Stewart’s lack of verticality, combined with a shaky-jumper, made it tough for the likes of Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes to generate points with Stew as the screener.
However, during the month of February, we saw Stewart implement a new wrinkle to his screen-and-roll game; the highway screen. This tactic has been used to great effect by a similarly ground-bound center in Steven Adams. The Memphis big man uses this method to provide star runningmate Ja Morant countless forays at the basket.
The highway screen looks like a standard pick-and-roll at first glance. In the graphic below, Stewart provides a ball screen for Cunningham to drive left toward the basket (screen shot No. 1). Following the initial screen, upon rolling in the direction of the rim, Stewart supplies a second screen (screen shot No. 2), allowing Cunningham to snake through the teeth of the defense, providing a high percentage look at the cup:
Prior to Feb. 15, Stewart ranked 21st in the NBA for screen assists with a lowly 3.0 per night. However, with the greater reliance on the highway screen, the Washington product provided 4.0 screen assists an outing for the remainder of the regular season. In these 22 games, Stewart’s newfound ball screen proficiency placed him 9th in league for screen assists.
The secondary aspect of Stewart’s pick-and-roll game, which seems set to become the primary feature in year two, is his ability to connect on three-point looks when ‘popping’ as the screener.
Following a rookie campaign that flashed the potential of a floor-spacing Stew, year two was a predominately a step backward in the range department. Not only were his shots off target, Stewart appeared devoid of confidence in his approach. This lead Dwane Casey to put Stewart’s shooting development on ice during game action.
However, in the final weeks of the season, with only development to play for, Casey renewed Stewart’s license to hoist from beyond the arc. In his final eight outings, Stewart shot 61.1% from distance, connecting on an impressive 11 triples from 18 tries.
The reignited shooting confidence within Stewart continued through the 2022 Summer League in Las Vegas. In a brief two-game stint, playing predominantly as the power forward, the former-first round pick shot 5-of-9 from three.
Yes, small sample size, but even before we saw him start hoisting from deep late in the season, the coaching staff seemed to believe in Stewart’s long-range shooting potential and a possible future as a stretch-four or stretch-five. During the season, it seemed much more about the sophomore’s confidence, rather than shooting mechanics. With what appears to be an injury-free, uninterrupted offseason, there’s plenty of reason to believe Detroit’s fan favorite can consistently drain three point looks in year three.
Two years into his NBA career, Stewart’s atypical stature for a five-man has proved to be anything but a limiting factor in protecting the rim. While he denied an impressive 2.1 shots per game at Washington, the knock against the undersized freshman was:
It’s...questionable whether he has the size and explosiveness be a rim protector at the next level. - nbadraft.net
Though the Washington product has yet to eclipse his college shot-blocking numbers at the pro-level, rim protection metrics constantly rank Stewart amongst the league’s best guardians of the painted area:
Best Rim dFG% vs Expected (great rim protection metric) in ‘21-‘22:— NBA University (@NBA_University) August 1, 2022
1. Hartenstein: -15.0%
2. JJJ: -13.7%
3. Gobert: -13.4%
4. R. Williams: -12.6%
5. J. Allen: -12.2%
6. I. Stewart: -10.9%
7. Giannis: -10.5%
8. Porzingis: -10.2%
9. M. Robinson: -9.8%
10.Achiuwa: -8.9% pic.twitter.com/NgsvtrPdyO
The above statistic from The BBALL Index, places Stewart sixth-highest in terms of defensive field goal percentage differential at the basket. Essentially, Detroit’s young big-man held opponents to 10.9 FG% less than the expected average shot conversion rate.
Stewart’s place amidst the league’s top rim protectors is a tribute to his tireless work ethic and defensive smarts. What Stewart lacks in prototypical physical tools to effectively deter opponents in the restricted area, he uses his mammoth 7-foot-4 wingspan to compensate, and he does so effectively. Instead of relying on above-the-rim athleticism, the 21-year-old stifles the opposition with instinctive timing and a quick second jump.
In each of his first two seasons with Detroit, lineups featuring Stewart have been best at prohibiting opponents from scoring at the bucket. In his rookie and sophomore campaigns, Detroit held opponents to -8.0 FG% and -2.9 FG% less, respectively, within 4 feet of the basket, per Cleaning the Glass.
To provide additional context, Detroit has been no slouch defending the painted area, residing in the top half of the league overall or opposing rim scoring conversion in the past two seasons (via Cleaning the Glass).
Though there will be nights Detroit’s 6-foot-8 big will struggle to contain the league’s most fierce interior presences, Stewart’s admirable interior defense, paired with the remainder of his defensive arsenal, provides Jerome Allen and company a valuable defensive piece.
Perhaps the most significant takeaway from Stewart’s sophomore season was his ability to effectively contain opposing ball handlers on the perimeter. After commencing the season with a drop-coverage style of defense, Casey flipped schemes, implementing a switch-first approach.
The altered approach presented fans with a new version of Stewart defensively. Instead of solely anchoring the paint, the Rochester, New York, native found himself tasked with guarding a variety of the league’s best playmakers. Not only did Stewart hold his own in such situations, he often went step-for-step with his smaller, more explosive opponents.
Per NBA.com, the combination of Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jayson Tatum, Chris Paul and Zach Lavine shot 40.1% from the field when guarded by Stewart. While all extremely dangerous offensive options, each possess unique physical traits and play styles, further accentuating Stewart’s defensive prowess.
While he had some memorable lockdown moments outside the painted area, Stewart’s uncanny lateral mobility allowed him to consistently maintain positioning between his target and the basket, often forcing the opponent into a tough jump shot over his never-ending outstretched arms.
Hence, it should come as no surprise that Detroit leaned heavily into a ‘Switching Stew’, with the 21-year-old ranking third in the NBA for total switches onto guards, behind only Bam Adebayo and Grant Williams.
Stewart’s skillset a priority for playoff success
The talent pool of players in the NBA has never been deeper, players have never been bigger, and offensive skillsets have never been more dynamic. That puts pressure on defensive schemes and individual players to be able to do it all or suffer playoff defeat.
With four guaranteed matchups against an opponent, coaching staffs are afforded the necessary time to expose and attack the weaknesses of a team’s defense — hunting switches, taking advantage of a lack of speed, size, etc. And it’s almost impossible to have an offensive non-factor out on the floor. With the exception of a few, those who can’t provide consistent production at both ends are often reduced to spot minutes.
As it pertains to Detroit and Stewart, on a recent episode of ESPN’s Hoop Collective, Tim MacMahon said “it feels like they [Detroit] are asking him...to be a bigger, more athletic version of PJ Tucker.”
While Detroit’ers may interpret this comparison dismissive of Stewart’s potential, Tucker is one of the many undersize bigs to thrive in the postseason, and is among the most valuable currency among title hopefuls. That is why he’s played for Milwaukee and Miami the previous two seasons with his next stop in Philadelphia.
While the above trio may not be the flashiest of names, each provided valuable playoff minutes. Both Tucker and Williams excelled at guarding opposing wings and draining open triples. While, Clarke was a menace in the paint, blocking shots and hauling in rebounds at both ends of the floor.
For Detroit, the beauty of Stewart is that he provides a skillset comprising of all three players attributes. His ability to defend the paint while also containing perimeter threats, make him a viable option in the front court when teams look to switch lineup combinations. And if the jump-shot development can translate into him becoming a real perimeter threat, he creates the spacing needed to help young guards Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey and Killian Hayes to excel and, eventually, the ability to create a dangerous playoff offense.
Stewart entered the league a tenacious and tireless defender who gave everything he had every moment on the floor. Naturally, that led to comparisons to another undersized Pistons great in Ben Wallace. While Stewart embodies the mental fortitude and physical strength Wallace displayed throughout his hall of fame career, he’s also added some decidedly 2020 NBA era elements to his game. Big Ben made seven 3s during his 16-year career. Stewart could easily rack up seven 3s in a two-game span this season.
The game done changed, and thankfully, the 21-year-old Stewart is ready to change with it in order to thrive and help the Detroit Pistons restore the team back into a dangerous playoff competitor.