In my playground basketball days, I was always at an immediate disadvantage. As an 18-year-old male, I’m only 5 feet, 4 inches, and that’s post-growth spurt. To this day, I can’t dunk on a hoop higher than 8.5 feet. Therefore, I like to fantasize about being tall, and live vicariously through basketball players. In this year’s draft, Washington’s Isaiah Stewart is the textbook big man who I wish that I could be.
In my article on the Boston Celtics’ draft needs, I mentioned Stewart’s name as a potential future Beantown representative. Mainly, I cited the 6-foot-9 center’s post scoring and defensive presence as his biggest strengths. His overall player efficiency rating (PER) of 27.2 and 5.9 win shares are good testaments to those skills, especially considering that he is a one-and-done prospect. He also registered a box plus/minus of 7.4, and ranked inside the top 10 of the Pac-12 for all three overall metrics.
|29 inches (standing) and 35 (max)
- Excellent rebounder, especially on defense; averaged 8.8 rebounds per game
- Great post scorer, averaging 17 points per game, with 48 percent of his points coming from the post
- Excellent finisher around the rim; ranked at the 87th percentile for points per possession on cuts and in transition
- Quick feet and first step
- Lots of muscle and strength
- Reasonable height and great length, standing at 6’9” with a 7’4” wingspan
- High IQ with the ball in his hands; knows how to exploit mismatches
- Plays with high energy on both ends of the court
- Pick-and-roll potential; had a field-goal percentage of 68 on a small sample size of 28 shots
- Good free-throw shooter, shooting 77 percent from the charity stripe
- Above-average shot blocking skills; had a block percentage of 7.0 (fourth in the Pac-12), and averaged 2.1 blocks per game (third in the conference)
- High potential/upside; the 10th youngest player on the HP Draft Board (Top 200)
- Poor deep shooter; shot only 25 percent from deep on limited attempts (20)
- Somewhat slow up and down the court; had just 33 shot attempts in transition
- Limited playmaking abilities; had only a 0.38 assist/turnover ratio, and post efficiency dropped when counting derived offense
- Ultimately unproven as an offensive multi-level threat
- Relatively untested as a perimeter defender; 82 percent of his defensive possessions came while playing zone defense this season
Stewart, who has measurables comparable to Kevin Durant (6’10 height, 7’5 wingspan) is a highly efficient scorer, averaging 1.083 points per possession (PPP) on overall offense, which was at the 95th percentile in Division I (DI). He averaged 17.0 points per game, and had a true shooting percentage of 62.9 percent, figures that were both inside the top 10 of his conference. The freshman takes advantage of his length, knows how to exploit mismatches, and can regularly roll right through contact for an “and-one” play. Nearly half of his points came from post-up plays, and Stewart finished 57.1 percent of his chances. Since posting up in the NBA isn’t nearly as common, he may take some time to develop his other, less utilized, skills, but the 19-year-old has time on his side.
Naturally, as a post dominator, Stewart averaged 6.2 free throws per contest this season, and he converted them at a 77.4 percent clip, the third highest percentage for non-guards in the Pac-12 this year. His free-throw shot features a big hitch on the way up, and isn’t the prettiest, but he’s a big man making more than three quarters of his free throws, so why fix what isn’t broken?
Stewart’s odd shooting motion entirely evaporates when he’s taking jump shots, but he is not an outside shooter. He attempted more than two 3-pointers in a game only once this season, and he made only 25 percent of them overall. However, his mechanics are actually very sound, and he made a respectable 20 of his 53 jumpers inside the three-point line (38 percent). His pick-and-pop numbers are uglier, only two makes on seven shots. It’s far too small of a sample size to make conclusive judgments, but this could be a key attribute for him in the future, and it’s worrying to see his skills executing that play as undeveloped as they are. Still, I can’t help but feel that Stewart hasn’t reached his ceiling. When you watch his jumper, it looks like it should go in. He has a soft touch, gets great elevation and has the long stride needed to create space. But he’s just not quite there yet. I’m confident his numbers will increase with time. He’ll never be the shooting big that Anthony Davis is or Dirk Nowitzki was, but I believe his shooting eye will begin to adapt once he is given more diverse offensive opportunities.
Another part of Stewart’s offense that needs to develop is his playmaking. With an assist/turnover ratio of only 0.4 and literally zero derived offense out of the pick-and-roll, most of Washington’s offense moved to him rather than through him. Once again, this can be attributed to the post-happy scheme that he played in, at least in part, rather than his own improvisational skills. Given his spatial awareness when muscling his way to the rim, I’m tempted to assume that he possesses that same awareness when looking to pass out of the paint, but we haven’t seen enough proof to make that conclusion. It doesn’t help that Washington didn’t shoot well from deep, as the team sported a three-point percentage of only 32.5 percent, 223rd in the country. That might have caused Stewart to be a bit less willing to kick the ball outside, but the fact still stands that his passing skills have yet to reach the NBA level.
The last issue with Stewart’s offense also relates back to his Washington threads. This may seem like a smear campaign against the Huskies program, but this is one less related directly to the scheme and playbook. Washington point guard Quade Green was an inconsistent force for the team, as he played in only 15 games due to NCAA transfer rules and academic concerns. Behind him, the Huskies lacked an experienced lead guard. Therefore, Stewart’s pick-and-roll opportunities suffered; he failed to establish chemistry with one point guard, and the opportunities were scarce (1.162 PPP — 77th percentile — on only 28 attempts).
On the defensive side of the court, once again, it arguably hurt Stewart that he was playing in a Washington uniform. He was almost constantly part of a 2-3 zone, making it tough to gauge his defensive capabilities. He was stationed underneath the basket, possession after possession, rarely venturing outside the paint, so the jury is still out on his perimeter defending skills.
Stewart plays his role with great energy and conviction, and is a nearly unmovable object in the paint thanks to his muscle and build. He finished fourth in the Pac-12 with a 7.0 block percentage. He also allowed just 0.796 PPP half-court post-up attempts, which ranked at the 75th percentile in DI, and he was reasonably effective vs. jump shooters in the half court (0.914 PPP allowed, the 49th percentile). Overall, Stewart has all the stuff to be a solid defender, both on the interior and the perimeter: length, height, muscle, hardheadedness, and laser focus. Due to a lack of speed, the only thing that may hinder him in the NBA is perimeter matchups, but his long reach can make up for that.
As a rebounder, Stewart took control of the Pac-12, reeling in 8.8 per game (third in the conference), and that number could have been even higher had he been in a man-to-man system that makes boxing out the opposition easier. His wingspan measures in at an eye-popping 7 feet, 4 inches, and his muscle in the post is not to be underestimated, allowing him to rack up the boards. Contrarily, offensive rebounds don’t come as easily to Stewart, as just 2.8 of his average come from the offensive side. That figure is nothing to shrug at, but it isn’t quite on par with some of the other bigs in the class (Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu averaged 3.7, and USC’s Onyeka Okongwu averaged 3.3). There’s no doubt he has the skill, as he was 6th in the Pac-12 with a 10.7 percent offensive rebounding percentage, but when you compare that stat to other highly touted centers this year (Okongwu had a 12.4 percent offensive rebounding percentage this year, and Oturu wasn’t far behind at 12.0 percent), it doesn’t quite measure up.
Intangibles and Miscellaneous
It’s important to remember that Stewart’s schedule included teams with formidable frontcourts such as USC (18 points and 10 rebounds on Jan. 5, 13 points and 11 rebounds on Feb. 13), Oregon State (13 points and 5 rebounds on Jan. 16), and Gonzaga (21 points and 10 rebounds on Dec. 8). Overall, he averaged 16.3 points and 9.0 boards in those four games, and he was especially effective against the Trojans’ Okongwu, a surefire lottery pick. Stewart faced plenty of solid competition, and often won his battles.
Stewart plays with a high level of energy that motivates those around him, especially on defense. He seems to be commanding his teammates around like a traffic controller, but not in a way that makes him seem high and mighty. He has such a feel for the game; he sees things that other players at his position wouldn’t see, and makes sure his teammates know what’s going on on the floor around them.
Overall, the unfortunate truth of Stewart’s college career is that it left many question marks. He’s obviously very talented, and is widely touted as a mid-to-late first-round pick, but there are still some blanks on his full report. We’ve only gotten glimpses of his defending outside the paint, his pick-and-roll/pop abilities, his deep shooting, and his capability in other offensive plays that don’t end with a finish within a few feet of the basket. He’s big and long enough to be an elite finisher, and has the quick first step to get around other bigs whose feet aren’t as sweet. But only time will tell if he can diversify his game and develop the outside shot, the pick-and-roll instincts, and the perimeter defensive skills that would make him a star.
Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements: Stats used in our scouting reports come from Synergy Sports Technology, RealGM.com, and Sports-Reference.com. Other outside sources are noted with links to the source.