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Setting Expectations for UW’s Isaiah Stewart

What does history say about the success of elite 5-star big men like Stewart

High School Basketball: Geico Nationals Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

The final Class of 2019 basketball rankings updates for the major recruiting websites were released this week which means that the 247 Sports composite is just about done. There can still be reclassifications from the Class of 2020 but except for a 1-2 spot slide, the ranking that we see today is the one that we’ll see when we revisit a player’s ranking 5 years from now. And Washington commit Isaiah Stewart currently sits at #3 overall.

This is of course an incredibly prestigious ranking. Stewart now becomes the most highly ranked Washington recruit in the history of the 247 Sports database. He narrowly edges out...Markelle Fultz who finished 5th in his class but became the #1 overall pick in that year’s NBA Draft. Husky fans are of course hoping that Washington will be much better than they were in Fultz’s single season in Seattle which resulted in the firing of Lorenzo Romar and ushered in the Mike Hopkins era.

While the Huskies have had a handful of highly ranked guards over the last several decades the only no doubt one and done big man they’ve had was Spencer Hawes who finished 4th in his class but with a slightly lower overall grade than Fultz. Hawes mostly lived up to expectations averaging 14.9 points and 6.8 rebounds for a team that finished below 0.500 in conference play despite having Hawes, Jon Brockman, and Quincy Pondexter on the roster.

Historical Comparisons

Basketball was a different game back in 2006/07 when Hawes manned the center position as teams have evolved to incorporate the 3-point shot much more heavily. In order to give an idea of what kind of season we might be able to expect from Isaiah Stewart we’ll instead go back to 2012. There have been 20 PF/C prospects that were top-5 overall in their class per the 247 Sports composite since that year. The average one of those players put up the following per game stat line: 13.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 56.4% FG, 63.6% FT.

For some additional context, Noah Dickerson in a relative down year this past season averaged 12.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 0.6 blocks, 55.6% FG, and 68.8% FT. The average freshman stud 5-star big man put up a line that was essentially Noah Dickerson on offense and a much better rim protector on defense. That’s already a pretty solid outcome and I think most fans would be reasonably happy with it.

However, that data set includes a couple of players who didn’t see nearly the playing time as we would expect from a healthy Stewart because of injury or under-performance. So let’s throw out anyone who played less than half their team’s minutes. All of those were due to injury concerns except for the Kansas pair of Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander who didn’t play much simply because Adidas paid them to go there but Bill Self didn’t actually want them.

As you would expect, the numbers go up. The new average per game stat line: 15.2 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 56.6% FG, 64.6% FT. For a recent Pac-12 equivalent those are just about the same as USC’s Nick Rakocevic this past season who averaged 14.7 and 9.3 as a junior this past season. Rakocevic is a good player but if Stewart lives up to the billing of most college ready big man in all of high school basketball then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that he would be better than that.

Of those initial 20 top-five big men, only 8 of them played at least half their team’s minutes and were in the top-three of the final recruiting rankings. Barring an injury it seems pretty difficult to imagine that Stewart won’t be a part of that group. Looking back at those 8 players it’s fairly easy to break them down into either offensive minded or defensive minded. 5 of the 8 averaged between 0.8 and 1.4 blocks per game. The other 3 all averaged between 3.7 and 4.7 blocks per game. Stewart is a good shot blocker with a 7’4 wingspan and above average athleticism but he’s not a complete freak of nature level shot blocker like those 3 (Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Mo Bamba).

Instead let’s look at each of the 5 who were more offensively focused and who likely provide some better comparisons with Stewart. That list is made up of: Jahlil Okafor, Aaron Gordon, Ben Simmons, Julius Randle, and Marvin Bagley. Pretty good company. And as we’d expect their stat line averages are better than the defense-first folks in everything but blocks where they fall off substantially: 17.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, 56.7% FG. Now that’s more like it. The only 2 players to average at least 17 points and 10 rebounds per game this season in a power conference were Ethan Happ and Dedric Lawson who finished 2nd and 3rd team AP All-American respectively.

You add in a lot of risk by throwing out the flame out cases as I just did to come up with even better projection numbers. There’s a non-zero chance that Stewart is a flat out bust and so including some of those players is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But I think it’s justified in this case. Stewart spent the last 2 months dominating the competition on the all-star circuit. There are no concerns that his ranking was inflated by playing against inferior competition. There are no worries that Stewart might not actually enjoy basketball that much and will shrink once he gets to college and more responsibility is placed upon him. He’s also completely ripped and already has the body of an NBA player. It didn’t take a fortune teller to predict Bol Bol would get hurt at 7’3 running on that pair of twigs he calls legs. Looking at Stewart it’s hard to imagine a player less susceptible to injury with his frame and physicality. Put it all together and a stat line in the neighborhood of 15-17 points, 9-10 rebounds, and 1-1.5 blocks seems like a very good bet.

Historical Team Success

Let’s take the final step of our homerism journey and imagine that Stewart does put up something resembling a 17 point double double and is in the conversation for 2nd team AP All-American status. What does that mean for the team? Unfortunately, looking at past history in this case is not going to be a tremendous guidepost. It turns out that top-5 players often end up playing with other top-5 players and often end up doing so at Duke under one of the greatest college coaches of all-time. Learning that Marvin Bagley and Jahlil Okafor made deep runs in the NCAA tournament doesn’t exactly tell us much about Washington’s chances.

If we go back to the original list of 20 players who were top-5 big men there are only 3 of them that played on a team that didn’t make the NCAA tournament. And only one of them also failed to make the NIT. That one example was LSU’s team under Ben Simmons who played the role of a jumbo point guard rather than a true center and which had some massive chemistry injuries. The two NIT squads were Kentucky in 2013 with Nerlens Noel and Baylor that same year with Isaiah Austin. The Kentucky team was on track for an NCAA berth before Noel was hurt with 10 games to play and the Wildcats faltered at 4-6 down the stretch. Baylor also collapsed in the back half of their schedule going 4-9 to end the regular season except unlike Kentucky they pulled out of their nosedive and went on to win the NIT.

If we use KenPom ranking rather than tournament success then 17 of the 20 finished as a top-30 team (UW finished 48th this year for context) and only the Kentucky and LSU teams mentioned above finished below 50th overall. But again we run into the bias that teams who recruit 5-star can’t miss prospects probably recruit very well around that player as well. With the Huskies on the verge of striking out with their other 5-star target and losing 5 of their top 6 scorers from last year, Stewart is going to have to be worthy of an All-American berth in order for the Huskies to make it back to the NCAA tournament despite the history of players of his ilk doing so.

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