Why the NBA is Ready to Bet on Isaiah Stewart

Washington's Isaiah Stewart has left a strong impression with many NBA front offices and is likely a first-round pick. Plus intel on LaMelo Ball.
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Every year, there are a handful of prospects who receive near-universal acclaim around the league when it comes to the off-court stuff. A player’s performance in interviews, perceived intangibles and background intel can go a long way. This year, it’s been a challenge to find a team with bad things to say about Washington’s Isaiah Stewart, who’s left strong impressions on many front offices and helped solidify himself as a likely first-round pick. I caught up with Stewart this week to talk through the unusual pre-draft process and get a feel for him myself.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jeremy Woo: One thing I’ve always appreciated about you as a player, dating back to high school, is your self-awareness—you know what your strengths are and you stick to them. Maybe they’re things people don’t always appreciate, but things NBA teams notice. How do you stay true to that while preparing yourself to adjust at a higher level?

Isaiah Stewart: I know the things I do may not show up in the stat sheet, but it’s just who I am. I’m a guy who doesn’t mind getting my nose dirty, doing the little things. I’ve always been a guy who works hard and plays hard. But also I feel like a lot of people may view me that way, but then don’t know that there’s a lot more to my game that they haven’t gotten a chance to see. I think throughout this process that’s what I’ve been able to work on and show teams. I envision myself being able to knock down shots consistently. I feel really comfortable from NBA range right now, and I know that’s something bigs have to have in their game. I think I’ve been able to prove that.

JW: The other thing that impressed me over the past couple years is how much you’ve been able to refine your body. Guys don’t always commit to that as early in their careers as you did. What did it take to maintain that over such a long draft process?

IS: Obviously working out and getting in the gym, but also taking nutrition seriously and putting the right stuff into my body. You have to be committed when it comes to making those changes. For me it was just tracking everything I’m eating, and working out in a way that benefits that. My body’s definitely come a long way and I want to make sure I’m taking care of it.

JW: I know you’re not a guy who’s ever really been used to losing many games. You went through that for the first time at Washington (the Huskies went 15-17), and obviously it was an up and down year for your team for different reasons. What were some of the things you took away from that adversity?

IS: The season we had, really it was my first time going through an experience like that. I think it made me better. I had to start thinking about how to lead a team in different ways, even through a losing drought, I had to stay strong and mentally locked in. I know I‘m being looked to by others around me, my teammates are watching my every move, and I set the tone with the way I react to losses. I had to learn how to interact with different personality types. If anything, it was a learning experience.

JW: Right, so the value kind of went beyond the wins and losses…

IS: Actually no, I wouldn’t put it like that at all. I’m a guy who hates to lose, and it was tough, don’t get me wrong. I was definitely mad. But [the responsibilities] are different when you’re a leader, you feel me? It was hard, but I just think it really helped me view things from a different perspective.

JW: Now that we’re basically at the finish line, how do you feel looking back on the past several months?

IS: This has definitely been a long process...for me, I’m pretty much just waking up and doing the same thing every single day. It’s definitely been a mental challenge, but I actually think that’s helped me. Going through the work and not knowing when the draft was going to be, I feel like it’s made me mentally stronger. Building better habits. Just wanting to make sure I was doing the right things. I feel good knowing I can look back at this time, knowing I stayed locked in and didn’t get distracted. I actually feel like I was able to take advantage of it.

SI's NBA Offseason Coverage

Memphis Tigers center James Wiseman

- Jeremy Woo’s final Top 80 Big Board

- Jeremy Woo’s latest mock draft

- James Wiseman’s long road to the draft

- Georgia’s Crean makes the case for Edwards

- Why the NBA is returning in December

Prospect close-up: Isaiah Stewart

Stewart’s willingness to do the dirty work, unrelenting motor and elite length for his position make him a pretty solid bet to be a longtime role player. His intangibles have long endeared him to scouts, and he was the productive bright spot on a bad Washington team. While Stewart isn’t the most naturally gifted athlete, which manifests in some occasional struggles at the rim, he’s developing a playable jumper and won’t ever require heavy touches to make his presence felt. Even though he’s more of a throwback big, the overall package here is appealing as teams fish for reliable contributors in the back half of the first round. Stewart should be an energy-bringer and positive presence wherever he lands.

Read more in SI’s latest Big Board

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An Update on LaMelo Ball and the Top of the Draft

I’ll have more on this over the course of the next week as we move closer to draft night, but in brief, this is my read on what’s happening with the Timberwolves, Warriors and Hornets, who own the top three picks.

- According to league sources, Minnesota continues to gauge leaguewide interest in the No. 1 pick. The Timberwolves are an opportunistic front office, and are still hoping to maximize the value of the selection via trade. But there’s an increasing level of skepticism from opposing teams that a suitable trade materializes. Dating back to the spring, this has been a draft class in which few, if any teams truly coveted the opportunity to pick first. The thought that another team might now surrender real assets to in essence pick atop a lottery nobody wanted to win? It doesn’t totally add up. If you assume they end up standing pat, Anthony Edwards continues to look like the most likely option for the Wolves.

- Golden State, on the other hand, is in a better position right now when it comes to trading the No. 2 pick. It’s no secret that the Warriors plan on contending next season and would like to add a more established, veteran talent by combining the pick with Andrew Wiggins’ salary. If they can do that while moving back in the lottery and still adding a young player they like, all the better. From what I gather, the market for the No. 2 pick appears to revolve around teams with interest in James Wiseman, as it’s widely thought around the NBA that Charlotte would take him if he fell to No. 3, and that LaMelo Ball might be available further down the board.

- Noting the strong possibility that Edwards and Wiseman are the first two players drafted, the primary question surrounding the top of the draft has become what happens with Ball. As things stand, I’ve found tempered expectation in wide-ranging conversations with league sources—including half the teams that currently hold lottery selections—that Ball will be the No. 1 pick. Conversely, there’s an increasing belief that Ball could fall into the 4-6 range of the draft, with Chicago and Cleveland viewed as candidates to either select him or trade back with another team who might.