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Pistons camp questions: How will Isaiah Stewart handle position switch?

Nov 15, 2023Nov 15, 2023

(Editor’s note: With training camp approaching, continues a series that examines the questions they must confront in their quest to turn the corner on general manager Troy Weaver’s restoration of the franchise to greatness. Today’s question: How smoothly can Isaiah Stewart make the transition to spending most of his time at power forward?)

Outside the Pistons bubble, Isaiah Stewart might get a little lost in the hubbub over Cade Cunningham’s magnetic aura, Jalen Duren’s sheer force, Jaden Ivey’s blinding speed and even rookie Ausar Thompson’s electric athleticism. Inside the bubble, Stewart holds a position of prominence.

“We missed him as much as anyone,” general manager Troy Weaver said when the season ended of Stewart missing the season’s final two-plus months. “His competitive spirit really is the heartbeat of the team. Him being out – we competed a lot of nights, but his competitive spirit drives the group.”

Similarly, projections about the Pistons future tend to dwell more on Cunningham’s ascension to superstar status, how quickly Ivey and Duren maximize their bristling potential and the impact new coach Monty Williams will have on one of the NBA’s youngest rosters.

But Stewart, again, figures prominently in any discussion for how much of a move the Pistons can make this season as it relates to his ability to transition to power forward.

The Pistons love everything about Stewart’s makeup – his work ethic, his selfless instincts, his genuine toughness. More than anything any player could say, those are the qualities that translate to true leadership.

They also believe wholeheartedly in Stewart’s ability to evolve. He came to the NBA as a player who’d never spent a meaningful possession of basketball anywhere but within arm’s length of the rim. Midway through last season, they began to expose him to the future they saw for him at power forward. Duren’s ahead-of-schedule arrival as a starting-caliber center made the move possible when it came, but it was always coming.

The public focus on Stewart’s transition to power forward revolves around his ability to become a credible 3-point threat. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but the importance of 3-point shooting – and the presence of it as a threat – is so central to functional NBA offenses today that it would be silly to deny its role in Stewart’s future at the position.

To that end, Stewart’s 2022-23 performance should be viewed as nothing but encouraging. It ended with him shooting 32.7 percent from three, but throw out a mid-season slump that largely coincided with a shoulder injury and the equation changes. From the start of the season through Jan. 6, Stewart was nearly a league-average 3-point shooter at 34.9 percent while taking 4.3 attempts per game.

The attempts were a revelation all their own. For Stewart, who shot a total of 109 3-pointers over 139 games in his first two seasons, to shoot them so freely for the first time in his career and already display such proficiency was one of the highlights of an injury-marred 2022-23 Pistons season.

Before being sidelined in late February with hip soreness, Stewart had begun to rediscover his 3-point stroke. Over his final four games Stewart hit 10 of 17 triples.

Stewart also has shown a burgeoning ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays off the dribble without veering into recklessness. The more teams have to respect the 3-point shot, the more those skills come into play.

At the defensive end, Stewart’s effort level, nimble feet and wingspan – despite standing 6-foot-8, Stewart has a nearly 7-foot-5 wingspan – allow him to compete against a variety of matchups. As Dwane Casey noted last season, another hurdle to overcome in the transition to power forward is adapting to the different tenets called for in transition defense.

The ability to move to power forward won’t preclude Stewart’s opportunities to play center, either, in smaller lineups that will afford Williams wide latitude in lineup construction, particularly at the end of games when opponents might employ five-out lineups. It’s another big reason the Pistons value Stewart so highly, as evidenced by the reported four-year contract extension the parties agreed to over the off-season.

“He’s a guy you want on your team,” Weaver said. “He’s a foxhole guy. Having him out was as big a loss as Cade being out.”