Pistons’ Isaiah Stewart, a former top high school recruit, is OK not being a star

DETROIT — For a good portion of Isaiah Stewart’s basketball life, he was considered the best. The high school rankings said so. There were invitations to USA Basketball. There were prep accolades. Every active, legendary college basketball coach wanted Stewart on their campus.

Stewart, like every heralded basketball prospect growing up, had dreams of being a superstar at the sport’s highest level. Everything leading up to before he turned 18 suggested it was attainable. Then reality set in when Stewart got to the NBA. He was drafted with the No. 16 pick. There were games as a rookie when he’d sit on the bench in Detroit, getting up only to cheer on his teammates.

That’s when Stewart took reality head-on and learned that, well, not everyone is going to be a superstar. And he learned quickly that is OK.

“You definitely have to swallow some ego,” Stewart told The Athletic. “As men, you’re always trying to prove who the best is and stuff like that. Once you get to a certain point … I guess, you see it for what it is. I’m just shooting you straight — there aren’t often plays called for me. For me, it’s, ‘How can I still impact the game?’ To me, I’d rather have the impact that I have, on defense. I feel like I can control the game that way.”

The 22-year-old, who is in his fourth year with the Detroit Pistons, has done what many players his age struggle to do: become comfortable being a role player. We can all think of countless players with similar backgrounds to Stewart — top high school recruits, first-round picks, etc. — who enter the NBA trying to prove superstardom is their destiny. The result, more often than not, is lost young men who struggle to get their NBA careers off the ground. Some never do. For others, it takes multiple situations before they come to grips with what their destiny is.

For Stewart, who isn’t that far removed from being considered one of the sport’s top prospects, learning that at his age has allowed him to become a valuable player. The Pistons aren’t a good basketball team, but there’s no question Detroit is better when Stewart is on the floor. At 6 feet 9, he’s the team’s best rim protector. He’s one of the two best defenders in space. Furthermore, Stewart just started shooting volume 3-point attempts last season, and this season he’s already knocking them down at a 38.6 percent clip.

This is a guy who asked to play summer league after his third season — a season in which he was a regular starter — because he wanted to get reps at power forward simply because he knew it would be the best way for him to see the floor among Detroit’s crowded group of centers. This is the same guy who decided he needed to add a 3-point shot to his game so he could play alongside another big man if needed. This is the same guy who played in a zone defense at Washington, had to answer questions about whether he could guard more than one position, and has become one of the more switchable defenders in the league.

Most players Stewart’s age wouldn’t look that far ahead, and most wouldn’t attempt to revamp their entire style of play just to find a way to fit in. There’s a level of humility that comes with that, a level many young adults who have been crowned at every turn simply don’t have.

“Not everyone is going to be able to score the ball, score 30 points,” said Stewart, who had 15 points in the Pistons’ 113-104 win over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night. “You have to find other ways to help a team win and other ways to stay on the floor.”

“For me,” Isaiah Stewart says, “it’s, ‘How can I still impact the game?’ To me, I’d rather have the impact that I have, on defense. I feel like I can control the game that way.” (Rick Osentoski / USA Today)

When we talk about development, we tend to glorify those players who have All-NBA, All-Star or even Hall of Fame upside. If his jump shot ever comes around, the sky is the limit! That’s natural. People gravitate toward the best. What we should take more time applauding is the player who, year after year, gets incrementally better and finds himself as a player. Those are the guys who have long NBA careers. Those are the guys coaches can rely on. Those are the guys who always tend to find a job.

Stewart has maybe developed more than anyone on Detroit’s roster over his four seasons. He’s not the same player he came into the NBA as. Back then, in 2020, he was a hard-playing rookie who got by with a relentless motor. That motor is still there, but now it comes with legitimate NBA skills that should keep him employed for a long time. The 3-point shooting is the most obvious. He went from averaging fewer than 1.0 attempts per game in his first two seasons to 4.1 and 3.9 last season and this one. The conversion rate is better than it ever has been. Defensively, he went from primarily guarding centers to spending more time on the perimeter defending guards and wings. Teams try to hunt switches against Stewart. It doesn’t often work in their favor.

The Pistons rewarded Stewart and his progress with a contract extension this past summer. Rival teams have called and inquired about him at every trade deadline and offseason for the past two years, and it’s often been teams with championship aspirations.

Stewart does things that winning teams covet. Even they can see it through Detroit’s losing.

“I think (expectations plague) so many young guys,” Pistons coach Monty Williams said. “Where they’re picked can mess with them, and then the expectations to be like this guy or that guy. When I talk to young players, I never tell them to look at superstars. I always tell them to look at the guy who is not that athletic but has been around a long time. ‘Watch that guy because he knows how to play.’ Being solid is a skill in this league, and it’s almost like it is diminished. If you’re just solid, everyone is like, ‘Oh, well …’

“In reference to Stew, he’s just a solid basketball player who can do a lot of things — the defense, the shooting, the rebounding, the physicality, being in the right spot and just being mentally tough every night — that is something we absolutely appreciate.”

Stewart might never be a star in the NBA. He’s fine with that. Yet he’s only 22 and he has added something new to the toolbox every season, so who is to say where the bus will stop for him? It’s obvious, though, that Stewart has already carved out a role for himself in the sport’s most prestigious club. He knows who he is. He knows what he does. He does it every night. His team appreciates it. Rival teams appreciate it. There’s nothing more you can ask for.

Coming to grips with reality sooner rather than later can be the difference between a short career and a long one.

“(Owning a role) says a lot about the type of person you are, that you’re willing to sacrifice for the bigger goal,” longtime NBA veteran and Stewart’s teammate Taj Gibson told The Athletic. “Finding specific skills, doing it every night and being able to hold on to it, it speaks volumes in a locker room.

“I love everything about (Stewart). I love everything about him. I love how he carries himself, how he works. He’s a team-first guy. He’s going to bust his ass for you. You have to cheer for a guy like that.”

(Top photo of Isaiah Stewart and Marcus Sasser: Rick Osentoski / USA Today)

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