We are now just about a week and a half away from Thanksgiving which as we all know means it’s time for the NBA Draft! Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Normally of course we would be many months past the draft but this is 2020 so at least we’re getting it eventually (5p PT on Wednesday, 11/18).
The Washington Huskies, despite finishing with the worst conference record in the Pac-12, have a pair of players expected to be drafted this year and we’ll be diving into profiles of each of them. If your favorite team just selected one of them a few days from now then welcome and read on.
Isaiah Stewart, Center, 6’9, 250 lbs
2019-20 Stats: 33 games, 17.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.1 bpg, 57.0% FG, 25.0% 3pt, 77.4% FT
Stewart was consistently viewed as not only one of the best prospects in his recruiting class but also one of the most “college ready”. At age 15 he had the body of an NBA center and used that frame to become one of the premium inside scorers and rebounders in the high school game. Stewart was from New York but moved to Indiana to play at basketball factor La Lumiere.
It wouldn’t have been difficult to think that a player of Stewart’s caliber would never turn down closer to home options like Duke, Michigan State, or hometown Syracuse to go to the Pac-12 and play for Washington. But UW coach Mike Hopkins when he was an assistant coach at Syracuse formed a bond with Stewart that turned out to be unbreakable. The trust Stewart had in Hop meant that in the end he’d go wherever he needed to in order to play under Hop. Plus it didn’t hurt that the Huskies had a recent history of feeding their big man as many touches as he wanted.
From day one, Stewart lived up to be the player that everyone thought. He was the model of consistency for a team that ultimately underperformed substantially. It’s hard to place much if any of the blame for that though at Stewart’s feet. Isaiah ultimately scored double digit points in 31 of UW’s 33 games and finished as Game MVP per KenPom in 15 of those contests which was tied for 4th nationally.
If this was 10 years ago or maybe even 5 years ago then Stewart would be talked about as a potential top-5 overall pick. Stewart may be 2 inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than Jahlil Okafor was at Duke but he put up almost identical stats and had a similar 5-star pedigree. That may not be the most sweeping endorsement of Stewart given the way Okafor’s NBA career has gone but we’ll get back to that eventually.
There’s no question that the cornerstone of Stewart’s game is his set of well rounded post moves. Isaiah finished the season shooting 57% in over 200 post-up possessions which was in the 93rd percentile nationally. Oftentimes efficiency declines with higher usage but that wasn’t the case for Stewart. If he got the ball within 7 feet of the basket and wasn’t immediately double teamed then the defense would consider themselves lucky if Washington failed to score points on the possession.
Cutting to the basket, transition, roll man in the P&R, it didn’t really matter. Stewart scored better than 1 point per possession on all of those play types. He finished 1st in the Pac-12 in free throw rate and took advantage of those opportunities unlike many big men. With a 77.4% free throw percentage Stewart was the most reliable player on the court late in the game in a fouling situation. It’s not often you see that from your starting center.
The full scope of Stewart’s defensive potential was hidden somewhat by playing in the zone. His primary job was to roam near the basket and block shots and he did it well. His 7% block percentage was 74th nationally so while Stewart isn’t a shot blocking savant he is certainly able to contribute in that regard despite not owning an out of this world vertical leap. He got away with it at 6’9 because of his 7’4 wingspan which also help him to corral contested rebounds at a high rate.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Stewart’s though comes off the court. He is just an incredibly impressive person. There’s not really a better way of putting it. Even playing for a team that had Sweet 16 expectations yet finished last in the conference, Stewart always displayed leadership on the court and didn’t let it bring him down. He has a ferocious work ethic and absolutely knows how to focus on his weaknesses and work as hard as possible to improve on them.
There are certainly red flags which help explain why Stewart isn’t viewed as a surefire lottery pick despite entering college as a top-3 player in his class and then dominating his competition. Let’s look at the closest comps per KenPom to Stewart’s freshman year: Julius Randle, Jared Sullinger, Bobby Portis, and Jarrett Allen. While Allen has had a little success with Brooklyn you can’t exactly call any of them guaranteed stars. There’s not exactly a recent strong track record of guys who are slightly undersized to play center but extremely reliant on their post game to succeed.
In the modern NBA you need to be able to guard in space or opposing teams will just put you in the pick and roll spin cycle. While I would argue that Stewart is potentially capable of doing this, he didn’t get a lot of opportunities to show it while at Washington because of the zone defense. Opponents shot just 26% against Stewart when he was playing man defense but the sample size is just 26 attempts. If Isaiah isn’t quite tall enough to play center then it’s tough to say that he is going to be effective guarding NBA power forwards in the modern game.
Speaking of the modern game, Stewart didn’t exactly show that he’s going to be able to expand his game outside of the paint. He did have some success attempting long baseline 2-pointers but he was incredibly inconsistent on his jumpers. It was a part of his game that Stewart hoped to showcase to increase his draft stock but 25% isn’t going to be good enough to allow him to shoot 3’s regularly once he’s in the NBA.
Finally, you can generally expect post players like Stewart to be black holes on offense and that was mostly the case. A 6.3% assist rate isn’t the worst for a big man as talented as Stewart but he is absolute by no means a plus passer. He’s a smart enough player that his passing can likely improve but on this particular Washington team there weren’t many better options even if Stewart was getting double teamed. Similarly, Stewart’s turnover rate of 16.1% was a little higher than you’d like but is okay for your average high usage center.
Expectations/Fit in the NBA
If a team is looking for a potential NBA All-Star then Stewart probably isn’t the pick for them. I’m not 100% convinced that his two biggest weaknesses (his shooting and guarding in space) are as bad as many think. Stewart will never be a plus defender on the perimeter but the combination of his intelligence and length make it hard for me to imagine that he’s unplayable in most matchups. Free throw shooting is generally more predictive than 3pt% when making the jump to the NBA and Stewart is great from the line. It’s unlikely he grows into Brook Lopez from behind the arc but it would come as no shock if he surpasses 33% sooner rather than later.
The biggest reason why that should be possible is his work ethic. The kid is an absolute warrior and will be an immediate asset to whichever locker room culture he enters. Even if the potential warts wind up being major factors it would be shocking to me if Stewart doesn’t become a 10-year rotation player in the league. If a team wants to place their bets on someone with both talent and character then Stewart is absolutely a home run pick.
That could lead to him getting selected by almost any team in the league that has a hole either at their starting or backup center position. Stewart is mature enough that he could endure playing fewer minutes if he ends up going to a contender. He also has an advanced enough game that if he gets taken by a lottery team with a hole at center that he could step in and contribute while helping improve the locker room.
The Celtics have 3 1st round draft picks and really value character and work ethic. It’s not as if Daniel Theis or Robert Williams have proven to be irreplaceable. However, if they decide to package those picks to another team in a bigger move I still think this is about the range for Stewart to come off the board.