In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will be profiled in this space and, in this installment, we break down Washington big man Isaiah Stewart.
It seems like there may not be enough discussion about how deep the 2020 NBA draft is with “project” big men. Honestly, that is understandable to a degree, as fans don’t get as excited about players that aren’t expected to be ready to contribute right away.
Isaiah Stewart, a 6’9 freshman center out of the University of Washington, may object to being referred to as a project big, but he’s one of a number of players providing the depth of that archetype. Currently projected by most outlets to come off the board in the latter half of the first round, he may be the kind of young player regarding whom teams choose to not outwardly display their enthusiasm.
Among all of the centers expected to be drafted in the first round, Stewart may broadly be considered to have the best motor and the most reliable work ethic. And while he is not the most athletic, in terms of his ability to play vertically on either end of the court, he has very good speed and above average agility. He also consistently puts his 250-pound frame and 7’4 wingspan to work.
Stewart’s lack of ability to elevate at the rim is more of a drawback on the offensive end of the court. Despite his ability to dive quickly to the rim in pick-and-roll action, he has a limited ability to serve as a lob threat. In his one season as a collegiate player, Stewart did not grade as well as one would hope in the category of converting shots at the rim.
But many NBA teams, these days, work hard to keep their big men on the ground more often than one might guess when defending in the paint. Defensive anchors that jump at shooters find themselves consistently in foul trouble and with a very limited ability to recover on the play if they miss. It is fine to see centers leave their feet when coming to offer help at the rim, more so than when planted in the middle of the defensive formation.
The clip above offers a look at Stewart jumping at a shot fake. One can see the difficulty he has recovering with an ability to make an impact on the play. Stewart will likely play his entire rookie season at the age of 19, so there is plenty of time to work with him in this area.
As seen in this example, Stewart too often doesn’t see the opportunities and the angles needed to be capitalized upon to offer help at the rim in the defensive half court. With that said, he did demonstrate marked improvement across his season with the Huskies.
If Stewart is to maximize his defensive value as an NBA player, it is likely to come in the form of working as a center that can help defend some on the perimeter while being able to recover back to the lane to have presence near the rim when needed.
As such, teams that are heavily committed to keeping their big man dropped in defensive coverage may not be the best fit for him. Teams that, for example, value having centers that can help defend at the level of a ball screen and quickly retreat would project to be an optimal fit.
Taking that into consideration, one probably shouldn’t be too surprised to see the Dallas Mavericks (slated to pick at No. 18) and the Boston Celtics (currently scheduled to pick at No. 14, 26 and 30) jockeying for the optimal spot to secure him. The Miami Heat (with the No. 20 selection) might also look to get in the mix, at least if they see themselves reworking their roster ahead of next season as to navigate away from a heavy dose of drop coverage.
Offensively, Stewart is at his best when working as a rim runner, and NBA teams will certainly love that about him. Not only do teams value the opportunity to generate easy points at the rim, they love to use the threat of those point to force opposing defense to match up in a rushed manner as to generate desirable shots from the three-point line.
Stewart won’t be in the elite class of big men in the straight line speed department — currently held by Bam Adebayo, John Collins, Zion Williamson and others — but he has enough to punish the slower, more physical centers in the league. From there, his hand-eye coordination is excellent, especially considering his size and position.
Still, he’s not yet the decision maker he needs to be to make the most of it. He’s turnover prone as a passer.
Like many players of his age and profile, Stewart lacks touch and feel and reads the floor a bit too slowly. He complied just 27 assists during his freshman season, while turning the ball over 71 times.
His current favorite offensive action is operating in isolation or in the post with his face up game.
He loves to put a quick jab step to work as to create space for a fairly reliable jump shot. NBA defenders will likely make him prove he can dribble past them, without turning the ball over, before they react much to the jab step.
It’s natural to wonder how much freedom Stewart will have to do things like this at the next level. His tools suggests some optimism, though, that he will be able to develop as a perimeter shooter especially in pick-and-pop opportunities considering his lack of ability, thus far, to maximize the value of shots at the rim.
There is also just enough to suggest that Stewart might develop as a big man that can operate in the short roll, which is critical for teams, like the Hawks, that deploy a high-usage point guard that flourishes in the pick and roll.
On both ends of the court, Stewart is simply going to have to learn to adapt to playing faster and will need to make better decisions within the context of reading the floor more quickly. If he can put his strong work ethic to use to do that, he could end up being one of the better value picks in the 2020 NBA Draft.