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Is the raw, athletic big man with a high ceiling too much to pass up?
Isaiah Stewart, PF/C, Washington
Age: 19 (5/22/2001)
Isaiah Stewart is a powerful big man on a team that could use one, but his raw nature and lack of a current stretch game makes him a longer term play. Can Denver afford to wait?
Power inside game with some finesse touches
Stewart is a ball of muscle with long arms. Build-wise he compares to someone like Bam Adebayo, with a massive frame that can fit in at power forward or center despite being 6’9. He’s not as thick-chested as someone like Zion Williamson, but he has a similar power potential. If you’d like to see him shoving probable top-5 pick James Wiseman around in high school, enjoy this:
He snatches rebounds, blocks shots, hammers interior defenders and runs the break. That’s probably not enough to get him drafted above players with a demonstrated outside game, but fits in with what Denver is looking for. And his touch in the paint is really good. He can get tip-ins, flash good footwork and has a quick second jump more than a huge vertical that lets him play the Nikola Jokic tap game.
Motor and desire
Stewart is a hustle player. “Run the floor like a dare,” he says is a motto of his from an early age. He hustles on defense, for rebounds, and in transition on both sides of the ball. He refers to himself as “the biggest sleeper in the draft” and is vocally annoyed that players he’s beaten his whole life are now being ranked ahead of him, stating he’s been working on his outside shot and other perceived weaknesses all year. I believe him. He has a bit of Derrick Favors in him with the monster chip on his shoulder, mixed with a bit of the Memphis Grit n Grind attitude. For me that’s definitely a plus.
Lack of explosiveness
Stewart can obviously dunk, and he runs well, but he doesn’t jump out of the gym. He’s not Dwight Howard, but instead relies on his length and quick bounce to take care of it for him. That works in high school and even college where there aren’t a ton of explosive big men, but it remains to be seen whether it will work in the NBA. It did for Zach Randolph, who is a decent style comp. But Zach didn’t have to play in the 2020 NBA.
He also played in a 2-3 zone in college, which means his switchability onto smaller wings has yet to be fully tested with real competition. Will the lack of vertical explosion carry over to lateral movement against wings on the perimeter?
Demonstrated shooting touch
Stewart hit 77.4% of his free throws. His form is decent, if a bit rushed. But he shot 0.6 times per game from 3, and only made 32% of his jumpshots in college. Stewart is a huge scouting call: his practice form is good and that shotmaking is consistent. Can he carry that into games? Can he get a reliable face-up game and hit enough from three to draw respect? Bigs who can only patrol the paint are fast becoming after-thoughts in the league, so he has to be able to do more.
Projected Draft Range: Mid-to-late first round
Denver Stiffs Big Board: 26th overall
NBA Comparison: Zach Randolph
Why Stewart makes sense for Denver
Stewart has a mature body – he can bang with NBA bigs right now. His lack of height against 7 footers is offset by his giant wingspan and that stout frame that’s just hard to move. It doesn’t leave him much room to fill out more, but in some ways that’s helpful for a Denver squad that would need power forward minutes and is probably losing both Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee. Stewart can step into bench PF minutes immediately as a defender and shot-blocker.
As someone who used to live in Seattle, I follow the Washington Huskies closer than some other teams. Stewart was seeing two and three defenders as the main point of attack for Washington, and freeing him up into more of a short roll or back-cut guy who flies in for rebounds can give him an easier road to impact.
He also does the scrappy things Denver needs, like getting back on defense or running the floor for a Jokic pass, without the prospect of him taking a bunch of shots away from Denver’s main offensive pieces. If his offensive game does prove out, though, then you’re looking at a potential Serge Ibaka type of player. That’d be hard to pass up.
Why Stewart doesn’t make sense for Denver
Denver needs 3-and-D wings. Stewart might be none of those things, if it works out poorly. Drafting him might mean replacing a Mason Plumlee who can’t make free throws with one who can. Since Stewart is much cheaper, that’s not an unattractive upgrade, but it still doesn’t solve a ton of needs for Denver and might give them another player who has trouble cracking the playoff rotation.
He’s also young. Michael Malone is not giving big minutes to a 19 year old when he’s rightfully trying to win a title, so is he going to be another player like Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez who is drafted outside the lottery and sits around waiting for his chance for 4 years? That’s not a pick that really helps the Nuggets. If he can play a limited role while he grows and demonstrates a varied skillset, fine – but if he can’t fulfill that limited role (ie, defense) then he’ll have a long slow road ahead of him to getting minutes.
Can Stewart shoot, or is it a mirage? Can he defend outside of a zone or is a switching defense anathema to him? Is he too young for the Nuggets to wait on, or can he make a limited impact now while getting his feet wet in the NBA?
I like big men with big motors. I was a John Collins fan, and a Bam Adebayo fan, and I’m an Isaiah Stewart fan. I don’t know that he fits what Denver is planning on doing, but if they’re going for upside and need a big man then I don’t know there are many with bigger upsides at any point in this draft than Stewart. A player like Xavier Tillman is a safer bet – he’s a great defender already who doesn’t really shoot much but has a really good basketball IQ. If the two are both available, the older Tillman makes a lot of sense.
But Denver is not known for a lot of safe bets in the draft, and the one year they played it safe and tried to get cute they got burned. Isaiah Stewart wants to be great, and he has the physical tools to be the kind of defender Denver will be lacking without Paul Millsap. Stewart has the potential to be an impact player on both ends without taking too many touches from Denver’s expected offensive lynchpins. His problem would be dislodging Jerami Grant should he return as expected, but his added ability to play against stronger players than the slender Grant can anchor against gives him a path to minutes with this team even as they gear up for another run at a title.