Isaiah Stewart was one of the top basketball players in the nation as a high schooler and anchored Washington’s offense and defense as an imposing big man. Leading the USA to a gold medal at the 2018 U17 FIBA world championship, with selections to the McDonald’s All-American Game, Jordan Brand Classic, and Nike Hoop Summit. Winning the Naismith trophy for national high school player of the year in 2019, he was widely ranked as a top three prospect. He continued this dominance by scoring 17.0 points per game and gathering 8.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game as a freshman in the Pac 12. If this were in the 1990s, Isaiah Stewart would likely be a lock for a top ten pick. In fact, some early mock drafts had him ranked as high as #3 and #5. But in today’s modern game, are post players like Stewart worth the gamble?
Per game: 17.0 points, 8.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.1 blocks, 2.2 turnovers, 59.0/25.0/77.4 shooting splits
Advanced: 62.9% True Shooting, 7.4 box plus-minus (5.0 offensive, 2.4 defensive), .222 win shares per 40
Physical: 19 years old (turns 20 next May), 6’9” with a 7’4” wingspan, 250 pounds
There’s a lot to be said about a guy who can just take you down on the block, overpower you, and outwork you for rebounds, both offensively and defensively. At 250 pounds, this 19 year old is very physically developed and can compete on that front from day one. He has a well developed post game, showing great ability to use his body, get into great spaces, and beat defenders for with a hook shot, spinning lay-in, or drop step. Stewart looks particularly adept at beating defenders who front him through excellent timing and positioning for receiving entry passes. His defense is also quite excellent, with generally good footwork and positioning allowing him to make up for a relative lack of explosiveness. Through these good fundamentals, he averaged 2.1 blocks per game; there’s not the sense that he’s hunting for blocks. Playing center in the middle of Washington’s zone, Stewart held his own when called upon to be the final line of rim defense. His one-on-one defense in the post will certainly translate to the NBA.
I feel the parts of his game that will translate best to the NBA are his rebounding and screen setting. Averaging 2.75 offensive rebounds per game is no small feat, especially when it’s largely due to his energy and motor, not his overwhelming height or strength. Along those lines, his ability to set a hard screen, flash through space to the basket, finish with authority, and hunt any and all rebounds, is going to be essential for the pick-and-roll systems of the NBA. But most of all, Stewart just looks energetic and driven. His motor and tenacity are fun to watch.
While Stewart seems to be decent with lateral mobility, there’s the sense that he’s not as explosive vertically, coming off more “heavy footed”. His finishes are really more finesse based - he doesn’t seem to be able to dunk over folks and convert alley oops all that easily. Even though he posted good counting stats–29 inch standing vertical and 35 inch max vertical at the La Lumiere Combine in September 2018–it seems that Stewart needs a bit of time to wind up and get both feet together to leap. Perhaps it’s a function of growing into such a big body at a young age, but he puts into perspective how ridiculous guys like Zion Williamson and Blake Griffin are.
The zone defense also hid Stewart’s ability to defend in space. My sense is that it’s worse than what we would think - I don’t think he’ll be particularly successful trying to hedge or much less switching a pick and roll at the NBA level. Even though he’ll be slightly undersized as a center in the NBA, he may even struggle to keep up in a foot race against more agile bigs.
Furthermore, even though Stewart clearly has tried to expand his range, taking 20 three pointers, making only 5, he’s just not there yet as a shooter. Stewart shot only 11/34 on jump shots in his season with Washington. Though he had a great 77% free throw percentage, on 6 attempts a game, Stewart will need a lot of development to be considered a threat from further than 10 feet away from the basket.
Color me surprised that Stewart is still regarded as a first-round talent, if teetering on a second round pick at that. His game just isn’t a great fit for the modern NBA, which is so dependent on spacing. The NBA has players longer, stronger, and more athletic, that can defend against his post ups while outrunning and outgunning him on the other end. The Jazz don’t need another relatively ground-bound backup big, even if Stewart’s motor could cause him to be a more successful backup than Tony Bradley. While an energy big is always great, Stewart projects to be more Cristiano Felicio than Montrezl Harrell.